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Katie van Schaijik

The priority of the personal in human happiness

Mar. 30, 2010, at 1:12pm

Interesting David Brooks column in today’s New York Times that begins by pointing to the case of Sandra Bullock (who won a Best Actress Oscar days before her marriage publicly fell apart) and asking whether readers would rather have a good marriage or a great career triumph.

Nonetheless, if you had to take more than three seconds to think about this question, you are absolutely crazy. Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled.

This is more than intuitive wisdom.

This is the age of research, so there’s data to back this up. Over the past few decades, teams of researchers have been studying happiness. Their work, which seemed flimsy at first, has developed an impressive rigor, and one of the key findings is that, just as the old sages predicted, worldly success has shallow roots while interpersonal bonds permeate through and through.

And it’s not just marriage.  It’s interpersonal relationships in general.

If you want to find a good place to live, just ask people if they trust their neighbors. Levels of social trust vary enormously, but countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime (regardless of whether actual crime rates are increasing or decreasing).

Brooks proposes that our institutions begin paying more attention to the non-material factors in human well-being.  I’m all for it.


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