Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Haven Lindsey
The election season has mercifully concluded, we know who will be our president for the coming four years, and it's time to toss aside the "us versus them" shenanigans.
In the midst of the incessant election coverage, more than one article staked claim to which political party was happier -- as if choosing to vote red or blue would result in an individual increasing his level of happiness.
In a July column, M.D. Harmon referenced the work of Arthur Brooks, who as president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, claimed that conservatives are more generous. Brooks compared faith, church attendance and charitable donations and reported in his 2006 book, "Who Really Gives," that conservatives live more faith-based lives, which leads them to be more generous. According to Brooks, this generosity is tied to what he touts as the happiness edge -- "conservatives possess more happiness," he concludes, inferring that happiness is a possession to be claimed.
In September, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students challenged Brooks' claim that one political party is more generous than another. In contrast to Brooks, Michele Margolis and Michael Sances report finding no statistical difference in overall charitable donations regardless of party lines. They did find, however, that conservatives tend to donate more to religious organizations and liberals tend to donate more to secular organizations.
In these divisive and politically charged times, it appears that once sides are chosen we no longer challenge ourselves by tuning into the opposing side unless it is to disparage it. "Advances" in technology allow us to tune into cable channels, radio shows, websites and blogs that reinforce our opinions and enable us to form insular boundaries from anything with which we disagree. The result is a loss of communicative and collaborative skill sets, which contributes to the detriment of society. This is neither generosity nor happiness; it is competition at its core with fear as its foundation.
When sides are drawn, we create alienating mindsets in other aspects of our lives, whether they are personal, political or professional. When disagreements arise, in lieu of collaborating, it has increasingly become the norm to either cut and run to avoid facing or compromising with an alternative view, or to bully one's way to getting what one wants. This is not generosity and it sure ain't happiness.
Brooks makes a reasonable argument that generosity is tied to happiness, that typically those who are generous tend to be happier individuals because they are considering others. Where he gets off track is his suggestion that happiness is something we have more of because we're conservatives and less of because we're liberals.
If happiness is the goal, why aren't we socialists? Each year the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports on life satisfaction and happiness factors; the happiest nations are consistently socialist-leaning. The United States has never come close to being the happiest nation. And with commercials that encourage us to buy a certain brand of vehicle or sneakers in order to be happy, or suggest that drinking a specific soft drink equates to happiness, we have a long way to go.
Happiness has nothing to do with competing for it or someone claiming to have more of it than someone else; it cannot be bought, although it can be shared, and there is plenty to go around. People who are happy have a generosity of spirit, they want others to be happy, they gain no enjoyment when others fail and they don't claim to be happier than others.
It is a basic formula that holds true for nations, states, workplaces and families.
Now that votes are tallied and the nation has chosen its direction, this is the time to make choices that will benefit everyone, not just one side. When we set aside rigid convictions and allow ourselves to see that accepting differences of opinions equates to strength rather than loss, and that living and working in collaboration results in better living and working conditions for all, happiness begins to emerge.
True strength does not magnify others' weaknesses, it makes others stronger. When we tap into our strength, we become collectively better, consideration and generosity follow and happiness results. As the old saying goes, "You can be right, or you can be happy," and by accepting our diversities it is possible we can be both.
Haven Lindsey lives and writes in Scarborough and works as a research analyst in Portland.