Nov 19, 2013

Happiness Revisited

Paul Solman is one of those reporters who you'd like to have beers with on your deck. I find that PBS Newshour is overstocked with such people.

Solman is the Business and Economics Correspondent for the Newshour. What his bio does not include is that his father, Joseph Solman, was a notable expressionist painter. Oddly enough Solman shares this with Robert De Niro, whose father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was also an expressionist painter. I believe they ran in the same social circles. (I'm not exactly sure why artists create so many interesting children, but when I need an artistic temperament/viewpoint/character in a novel, I always go with a painter or a photographer, heeding the writer's dictum that there is nothing more insufferable than reading a writer write about writers.)

This summer Solman did a one-two punch on happiness, a topic about which I've already written. Both pieces address happiness in relation to prosperity and both pieces rely on behavioral economist. I think there must be some hope as Solman comes from an artistic/humanist background. As I mentioned in the post linked above, I find most behavioral economists missing the mark, especially when compared to how well great art dwarfs these scientific explanations.

Finding the Connection Between Prosperity, Compassion and Happiness aired on 20 June 2013. It highlights several books and studies that conclude: 1) The highest GDP does not mean that Americans are the happiest people on the globe, 2) Wealthy individuals are not necessarily the happiest, and 3) Lower class/income people have the ability to feel more compassion, which is key to happiness.

I still find behavioral economics studies hopelessly muddled, but here's the quote from Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley professor of psychology, that stood out:

"When you grow up in lower-class backgrounds and lower-class circumstances, there's just more difficulty in your environment; there's more unpredictability; there's more risk; there are more threats.
And what we have learned from really interesting neuroscience is that humans, in the face of threat, connect to other people. And then complementarily[sic], we thought, you know, if you grow up in a more privileged circumstance, you orient inwards to what's inside of you. And those are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the world."

What Keltner is describing is introversion vs. extroversion. And the conclusion is that lower-class backgrounds make people extroverted and upper-class backgrounds make people introverted.

I distrust such sweeping generalizations and have seen a lot of lower-class backgrounds which created coarse, unfeeling people and plenty of upper-class backgrounds which have created generous and caring people. And vice verse, if that's not too confusing.

The very next day came Solman's Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality. A Berkeley study found that wealthy people are less well behaved than unwealthy people. The conclusion was based on how many expensive cars violated pedestrian laws and how high-income earners take candy from children and cheat at games.

This is not really surprising if you've ever been around ambitious people. It is rarely an accident that such people become successful and if you look carefully at the uber successful, you will find unpleasant behavior. They don't mention people who have inherited wealth nor people whose wealth is serendipitous. Like Gloria Mackenzie, the 84-year-old Lotto winner, who apparently carries on in her frugal and pleasant ways. Has she become an asshole?

It might well be that people who buy BMWs and Porsches are simply more unpleasant. I've seen many more BMWs drive fast and recklessly (and do horribly in a UK snow storm) and apparently a Porsche 911 in film is shorthand for jerk owner. And their ads are often about rewarding oneself for a job well done.

This all brings me back to how art describes the symbolic realities so much better than science.