The secret to happiness at work isn't about money

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Article Highlights

  • Opportunity is the secret to happiness through work, which means fighting for the spirit of free enterprise

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  • 15% of Americans in the bottom income quintile can expect to break into the middle class in 10 years

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  • Earned success — the belief you are creating value with your life and value in the lives of others

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It's the least wonderful time of the year. Just a few weeks into 2014, and a fifth of Americans have already cheated on their New Year's resolutions, according to a recent poll. Nearly half the country didn't make it that far –- 46 percent abandoned their resolutions before they could even start them. To top it all off, research indicates that only 8 percent of us will have kept our resolutions come the end of the year.

At least there's some good news. After decades of study, social scientists finally have an answer to that age-old question: What really makes us happy?

It doesn't seem like good news at first. After accounting for genetics and the short-lived impact of recent events, it turns out that only 12 percent of happiness remains under our control. But if we focus on the right things, this 12 percent can have a profound impact on our lives.

Data show that four basic values have the biggest influence on our happiness: faith, family, community, and work. The first three are no surprise. Studies consistently demonstrate that people of faith —any faith — are consistently happier. Ditto for family life, which trumps loneliness any day of the week. And try convincing someone that friendships and community involvement aren't worth the time.

But work? At first blush, our jobs seem likelier to reduce happiness than promote it.

Yet the General Social Survey disagrees. More than half of Americans report being "very" or "completely" satisfied with their work. Add in "fairly" satisfied, and that number increases to more than 80 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment proves disastrous for happiness. (Retirement, in case you're wondering, is a mixed bag: Some get happier, others do not.)

This is not about money. The secret to happiness through work is earned success — the belief you are creating value with your life and value in the lives of others. Americans who feel successful in the workplace are twice as likely to say that they're happy overall.

This means economic opportunity is critical. That's what enables us to find the job that suits our skills — hedge funds, hedge trimming, or something in between — and advance through hard work. Opportunity is the gateway to a key source of human happiness.

Unfortunately, many economists believe free enterprise has slowly declined in America over recent decades. In 1980, more than 20 percent of Americans in the bottom income quintile could expect to break into the middle class within 10 years. Today, that number has fallen to 15 percent. Increasingly, Americans at the bottom are stuck at the bottom. This is not some mere economic inefficiency. It is a moral tragedy.

The solution to this opportunity crisis lies in the principles of free enterprise: individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship, and self-reliance. In the last two decades, societies built on these pillars have lifted more than a billion people out of starvation-level poverty. No greater engine of opportunity has ever existed.

Unfortunately, many economists believe free enterprise has slowly declined in America over recent decades, which explains the falling opportunity levels among the poor.

The right policies can stimulate opportunity in America during this difficult time. We need schools that put children's civil rights ahead of adults' job security. We need to encourage job creation for the most marginalized and declare war on barriers to entrepreneurship at all levels. And we need to revive our moral appreciation for the cultural elements of success.

Opportunity is the secret to happiness through work, and this requires fighting for our American spirit of free enterprise. That fight, for the sake of all people, is a worthy resolution for 2014.

View "The Secret to Happiness."

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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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