Dear Science,

Is there a scientifically proven path to happiness? I've been thinking about this more and more, particularly after watching all the angry Tea Party people running about, bitching about their taxes. I can't imagine having a bit more money would make any of these folk cheerful. Back me up, Science! There's got to be more to life than the libertarian's dream of a handgun, a cabin in the woods, and a low marginal tax rate for the rich.

Money Can't Buy Cheer

The answer—by way of a delightful army of economists, sociologists, and psychiatrists—comes down to a solid list of negatives. To be happy, you can't be too sick, you can't be too poor, you can't be too lonely, and you can't be too isolated from a vibrant community. The key here—and a nuance that Science feels is often missed by the antigovernment, anticommunity, and antitax activists—is the balance. Being rich—even disgustingly, astonishingly, deliriously, galactically rich—by itself is not enough for a happy life.

The scientific community turns happiness into "subjective well-being," or SWB, an individual's rating of his or her own overall life satisfaction and subjective happiness. There's clearly a bit of discomfort with the end point here. (Subjective is right there, in the name!) What follows is a long list of surveys, occasional randomized studies in controlled settings, and a whole bunch of statistics providing us with our data.

To be happy, we need enough money to not have to think about money; for Americans, that magical number seems to be around $75,000 per person. Let's call this the I-don't-need-no-fucking-budget threshold. Income above this threshold adds little, objectively, to an individual's happiness.

Being involved in a community, including nonreligious communities, is important for happiness. Feeling like you can trust your neighbors and countrymen—that we are collectively building something worthy of pride—is a requisite for a happy life. The data says sitting at home watching cable shows that tell you that half your fellow citizens are monsters probably isn't going to cheer you up.

Being alone, objectively, sucks; individuals involved with other people are measurably happier. The more contact you have with people you like, the more time you spend in public venues that you enjoy, the happier you are.

Together, this seems to point to an obvious conclusion: The health of the broader community matters, culture matters, the well-being of your neighbors matters. Happiness is as much about the social aspects of our world as the financial. If you want to live in a happy country, you should focus on investing in your countrymen—sharing when you have, and feeling confident that others will share if and when you find yourself in need. This is the fact the Tea Party movement misses.

Collectively Yours,


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