Want to be happy? You probably should stay out of politics and stay out of Washington

Pursuit of power and happiness don't mix

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Americans have a special obsession with happiness. It is written into our founding document: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of happiness is no easy thing and presents many a paradox.  One of them is the relationship between happiness and ambition or accomplishment. 

We know from both the religious wisdom of the ages and modern research that people who pursue “intrinsic” values – love, relationships, community, learning, creativity – will be happier on the whole than people who pursue “extrinsic” values – fame, power, wealth, recognition. 

Yet we need and want these people because they make life interesting and they are creators, entertainers and artists.

I am prompted to ponder the political fallout from this paradox by an essay that has been among the “most read” pieces on The New York Times web site for several days running, “Love People, Not Pleasure” by Arthur Brooks.

Brooks runs a conservative Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. He also studies human happiness from the perspective of an economist and wrote a book called “Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America -- and How We Can Get More.”


Arthur Brooks.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The study of happiness has been a boom industry in America for the past two or three decades. The fancy name for it is positive psychology, the study of what makes us featherless bipeds flourish rather than what makes us ill. 

Brooks’ piece went over some of that research to make the point that the pursuit of pleasure as conventionally understood (wealth, fame and sexual variety) is actually antithetical to the pursuit of enduring happiness.

He writes: 

“Consider fame. In 2009, researchers from the University of Rochester conducted a study tracking the success of 147 recent graduates in reaching their stated goals after graduation. Some had ‘intrinsic’ goals, such as deep, enduring relationships. Others had ‘extrinsic’ goals, such as achieving reputation or fame. The scholars found that intrinsic goals were associated with happier lives. But the people who pursued extrinsic goals experienced more negative emotions, such as shame and fear. They even suffered more physical maladies.

“This is one of the cruelest ironies in life. I work in Washington, right in the middle of intensely public political battles. Bar none, the unhappiest people I have ever met are those most dedicated to their own self-aggrandizement — the pundits, the TV loudmouths, the media know-it-alls. They build themselves up and promote their images, but feel awful most of the time.”

Despite the painful fact that I appear to be in the class of “the pundits, the TV loudmouths, the media know-it-alls,” I agree with Brooks.

Indeed, I would expand his assessment in two ways. I would include a lot of people who are trying to do good in Washington -- politicians, crusaders, policy experts, lawyers and so forth -- to his list of the unhappy.

And I would say that my experience is that most people outside of Washington think most of the people inside of Washington are jerks and share Brooks assessment.

Washington, D.C., indeed may be the unhappiness capital of America.

But if that is true, it isn’t the fault of Washington or its power-hungry inhabitants. The problem is with happiness. Or how we think about it.

As I said, the idea that the keys to happiness are life’s intrinsic values, not the extrinsic values of gold and flesh is ancient and at the core of every religion. Positive psychology has proved the point with brain scans and empirical studies. 

But people are tricky and we have complicated motives. Some of us Washington loudmouths and crusaders pursue ambitious goals for simultaneously idealistic and ignoble reasons. 

More important, society benefits from driven people, no matter what their motives. We expect novelists, poets and philosophers to be crazy and driven. And we love them for it. Why shouldn’t the same be true of power mongers?

In fact the collision between ambition and happiness is often tragic. Among the first to understand this was none other than Machiavelli.

The author of “The Prince” is often considered to be the first truly modern political philosopher. Until Machiavelli, all philosophy was religious in the sense that it believed the world had logic, was orderly and harmonious.

Machiavelli didn’t believe that for a second. The moral consequences of that were stark.

Machiavelli believed the virtues of a public person, the prince, inevitably collided with the virtues of a private person. The prince was doomed to sin and there was no glossing over that tragic conflict.But without princes, republics don’t survive.

So are the workaday, wool suit clad princes and princesses of Washington doomed to the ash heap of unhappiness?


But there is something deeper that humans pursue. The positive psychologists, as I understand the field today, have come to see happiness as too thin a metric of life. Now they talk more about satisfaction.

Many people, for at least times in their lives, pursue goals or values that are important but that don’t necessarily lead to happiness or rewards. 

Effort itself, the pursuit of higher things, is a satisfaction different from happiness. Perhaps it’s more enduring.

Martin Seligman is one of the leaders of positive psychology movement. In his book “Authentic Happiness” he wrote:

“When an entire lifetime is taken up in the pursuit of the positive emotion, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. The right question is the one Aristotle posed two thousand five hundred years ago: ‘What is the good life?’”

The uniquely American pursuit of happiness is very different than the pursuit of the good life. And it is hard to square anything having to do with Washington with the good life. 

Maybe it is a comfort to those outside of the Beltway that those of us inside it are probably not as happy as you.  But a lot of us are trying.

So, next time you have a chance, be kind to your local senator.  Or loudmouth.

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