Does a country's economic prosperity lead to happiness?

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Article Highlights

  • Money doesn’t buy happiness, but economic growth is important because it gives us a shot at its pursuit. @arthurbrooks

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  • “Without economic growth, we cannot have an upwardly mobile opportunity society.” @arthurbrooks

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  • Economic growth isn’t just about rising living standards. It’s about giving people a chance to earn their success.

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There is perhaps no more famous statement of the American ideal than the Declaration of Independence’s claim that we possess the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s not a guarantee of happiness — just an assertion that it is our right to define it as we see fit, and pursue it.

Of course, money doesn’t buy happiness. The reason economic growth matters, though, is because it gives us a shot at the pursuit.

Without economic growth, we cannot have an upwardly mobile opportunity society. Instead, we get an envy society, where people fight over a fixed amount of resources. Parents are unable to envision their children doing better than they did—except by stealing from their neighbors (or worse). This is the situation in many countries around the world, and certainly one we would like to avoid here at home.

Today, we face policy choices that make us ask: Will we accept stagnant growth and an envy society, or will we continue to choose growth and opportunity?

But economic growth isn’t just about rising living standards. It’s about giving people a chance to earn their success.

To be truly happy, people also have to be able to succeed on the basis of their hard work and good ideas. That means true fairness based on rewarding merit, not just redistributing income. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman’s pioneering work shows what happens when people believe success and reward are disconnected; he calls it “learned helplessness.” With this helplessness comes unhappiness, as people give up and become passive.

In short, then, the pursuit of happiness requires opportunity, and opportunity requires economic
growth. In an economically stagnant society, people learn helplessness and can’t earn their success. Nobody believes that money buys love or happiness or contentment. And in fact, people who argue that we should ignore growth in favor of simply redistributing wealth are preaching shallow materialism.

Economic growth provides a canvas where people can realize their hopes and desires for themselves and their children. America’s founders understood this. And so should we.


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About the Author


Arthur C.
  • Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise at AEI.

    Immediately before joining AEI, Brooks was the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government at Syracuse University, where he taught economics and social entrepreneurship.

    Brooks is the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on topics including the role of government, fairness, economic opportunity, happiness, and the morality of free enterprise. His latest book, “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise” (2012) was a New York Times bestseller. Among his earlier books are “Gross National Happiness” (2008), “Social Entrepreneurship” (2008), and “Who Really Cares” (2006). Before pursuing his work in public policy, Brooks spent 12 years as a classical musician in the United States and Spain.

    Brooks is a frequent guest on national television and radio talk shows and has been published widely in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

    Brooks has a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND Graduate School. He also holds an M.A. in economics from Florida Atlantic University and a B.A. in economics from Thomas Edison State College.

    Follow Arthur Brooks on Twitter.

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