Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Ben Bernanke, the current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave an excellent commencement speech at the University of South Carolina over a week ago. His main topic was happiness.

Bernanke's Speech

A study done by Richard Easterlin that Bernanke referenced in his speech found that income does have an impact on happiness, but that countries don't get any happier after going beyond the level of meeting basic needs. Americans were no happier than Costa Ricans despite the large differences in incomes, but "rich" Americans were happier than "poor" Americans.

He also found that Americans today are no happier than they were 40 years ago and incomes have certainly risen since then. Easterlin believed that total wealth was not the factor at work here, but rather relative wealth. Happiness appears to be based largely on comparing oneself to one's neighbors. This would explain the difference in happiness between poor and rich people within a country as well as the lack of difference in happiness between people in rich nations compared to people in poor nations.

It also speaks to the adaptability of people to their situations. Humans have an incredible drive to be happy and will force themselves to be happy in order to get through each day. Indeed, we often diagnose those who do not adjust to their situation as "depressed." It certainly is much more difficult to be happy when your neighbors are enjoying pleasures, comforts, and conveniences that you cannot afford.

I propose, then, that we should not look to our neighbors and base our happiness off of enjoying pleasures that they do not. The material possessions and comforts that we enjoy are for most of us in a precarious situation. There is no guarantee that they will be there tomorrow. Instead we should consider if the comforts we enjoy are enough for us though they may be less than what our neighbor enjoys and be grateful that we do not endure the hardships that many in our world endure.

If we base our happiness on the love that we give and receive to and from God and our neighbors then our material possessions will not own us and control our level of happiness. Instead we will find happiness in hardships even though it may take longer and require a degree of pain or foregone immediate pleasure to reach that longer lasting happiness.

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