Does a country's economic prosperity lead to happiness?

Flickr/Nathan Borror

Article Highlights

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

    Tweet This

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

    Tweet This

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

    Tweet This

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.

 

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Arthur C.
Brooks

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 27
    MON
  • 28
    TUE
  • 29
    WED
  • 30
    THU
  • 31
    FRI
Monday, October 27, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
State income taxes and the Supreme Court: Maryland Comptroller v. Wynne

Please join AEI for a panel discussion exploring these and other questions about this crucial case.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 9:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America

Join Lerman, Wilcox, and a group of distinguished scholars and commentators for the release of Lerman and Wilcox’s report, which examines the relationships among and policy implications of marriage, family structure, and economic success in America.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
The 7 deadly virtues: 18 conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell

Please join AEI for a book forum moderated by Last and featuring five of these leading conservative voices. By the time the forum is over, attendees may be on their way to discovering an entirely different — and better — moral universe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
A nuclear deal with Iran? Weighing the possibilities

Join us, as experts discuss their predictions for whether the United States will strike a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the November 24 deadline, and the repercussions of the possible outcomes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
The forgotten depression — 1921: The crash that cured itself

Please join Author James Grant and AEI senior economists for a discussion about Grant's book, "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.