The happiness gap around us

By Rosa Brooks Published:

By Rosa Brooks

Its been a rough couple of weeks. Hamas won the Palestinian elections; protests over cartoons representing the prophet Muhammad raged around the world; more Americans and Iraqis were killed by suicide bombers; new Abu Ghraib photos were released; and, here at home, the vice president got violent.

But despite the trying times, we Americans are managing to keep our spirits up. Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report on happiness in the United States. Of the Americans surveyed, 34 percent informed researchers that they were very happy, while another 50 percent reported that they were pretty happy. Thats a happiness record in which our nation can take pride.

More than 200 years ago, our forefathers broke new ground by insisting, in the Declaration of Independence, that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, sharing pride of place with life and liberty. If the founders could see us today, I bet theyd be proud of the 84 percent of Americans who consider themselves happy campers.

Admittedly, some of us have made more progress than others when it comes to the pursuit of happiness. For instance, 45 percent of Republicans were very happy, compared to only 30 percent of Democrats. White evangelical churchgoers were also a particularly cheery lot, with 49 percent reporting themselves very happy.

Meanwhile, poor people and black people tend, like Democrats, to be party poopers. Those with family incomes under $30,000 were only half as likely as those with family incomes over $100,000 to be very happy, and blacks were almost twice as likely as whites to insist churlishly that they were not too happy.

Not that this is surprising. Everyone knows that poor people, minorities and Democrats are always carping about racial and economic inequality, war, torture, the deficit, our lack of preparation for terrorist attacks and natural disasters, blah, blah, blah -- all real downers. Meanwhile, happy people -- exemplified by President Bush -- resist all that negativity and stay focused on the good news.

So if youre one of those very happy Americans, clap your hands! Or, at least, pat yourself on the back, because youve got a lot to look forward to. Happy people have stronger immune systems than the gloom-and-doom crowd, and they may be more successful in life. As scholars Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener conclude in a recent Psychological Bulletin article, happiness, rooted in personality and in past successes, leads to approach behaviors that often lead to further successes. In other words, happiness doesnt just result from success: It may actually cause success. Now theres something to be happy about!

I know. Its not that easy, is it? Because no matter how patriotically dedicated you are to the pursuit of happiness, it really is hard to be totally happy when there are all those naysayers out there, people who keep trying to make you focus on depressing stuff such as corruption in government, instability in the Middle East and the image of Dick Cheney, armed and dangerous.

But if youre feeling bad, heres something to cheer you up: Some social psychology researchers insist that, at least in certain contexts, unhappy people may be more successful than What, me worry? types. Thats because happy people tend to rely on what psychologists call heuristic shortcuts when performing tasks and making decisions. In English, this means that happy people rely more on stereotypes and simplistic assumptions, while less happy people are more willing to think through each problem on its own terms.

Relying on heuristics has benefits; not least, it increases efficiency in decision-making. But it has hazards, too. Especially in situations that present new, unique or complex challenges, relying on heuristics can lead happy people into cognitive errors that gloomier folks can more easily avoid. Happy people, for instance, may be more likely to rely on ethnic and social stereotypes when evaluating individuals, and happy people also may be more inclined to fall back on simplistic political ideology in lieu of analysis.

All this leads some psychologists to conclude that whether happiness is good or bad depends largely on the context. Thus, psychologists Richard Lucas and Ed Diener note that mildly dysphoric individuals (a.k.a. unhappy people) are likely to underperform in leadership or social tasks -- meaning you wouldnt really want to hire them as camp counselors. But those same unhappy people might excel in jobs . . . where constant vigilance for possible problems is absolutely essential.

Lucas and Diener suggest, for instance, that less happy people might do better than happy-go-lucky types when it comes to jobs such as monitoring a nuclear power plant. Or reconstructing Iraq, or leading the Free World.

But dont let me rain on your parade.

(Rosa Brooks is an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.)

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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