Tim Kasser and the pursuit of happiness


by Norm Winick


Tim Kasser is a professor of psychology at Knox College and an activist for social causes. He has spent a lot of time trying to understand what makes people happy. To increase his, he and his family live on a farm outside of Galesburg. He also appreciates the atmosphere and nostalgia of Coney Island. A recent article about his work in the journal, Miller-McCune, was entitled “Should the Government Make Us Happy?” I asked Kasser about that…

Should it?

I don’t think that anyone can “make us happy.” However, government can do things to remove the roadblocks to happiness and to open up more opportunities for happiness. So, for example, the U.S. is one of the few nations in the world without minimum mandatory paid vacations, without mandatory paid leave for new mothers, and that doesn’t limit how many hours per week your boss can ask you to work. Passing such laws would give people more free time, which is associated with greater happiness, in general. Another example: We know that advertising, particularly that directed at children, is associated with a host of different kinds of problems, including alcohol and other substance use, overly promiscuous sexual behavior, eating disorders and body image problems, low levels of life satisfaction, obesity, etc. Government could ban all advertising directed at children under 12 (which almost happened in the 70s) and tax all other advertising (rather than the current tax write off it is currently given). Proceeds from the tax could be used to fund all kinds of community programs, mental health counselors for community mental health centers, etc.

Is “Promoting the General Welfare” the most important phrase in the constitution?

Not being a constitutional scholar, I’m not prepared to answer that question.

The article talks about what makes you happy. Have you found anything that makes everyone (or at least most folks) happy? If so, what?

The research (not just mine) shows that good interpersonal relationships, volunteering, meaningful work, a good sex life, and health make just about everybody happy. Further, happiness also seems to come from the opportunity to engage in activities that bring “flow,” where you are so deeply involved in whatever you are doing that you lose track of time and consciousness of yourself. See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Finding Flow” for more on that.

Should materialistic people suffer for their greed?

I’m uncomfortable with the word “suffer.” We know from the research we’ve done   that materialistic individuals are less happy, act in less pro-social ways, and act in more environmentally damaging ways. Some of this is also discussed in my book “The High Price of Materialism” (MIT Press, 2002). Given that materialism seems to have negative ramifications for other people’s well-being, then I think a concerted effort to decrease the extent to which materialism is encouraged in society is necessary. So, for example, we can put caps on the average CEO to worker salary ratio in a company. We can have a graduated luxury tax (see Robert Frank’s book, “Luxury Fever”) in which very high end products are taxed at higher and higher rates, the proceeds of which could be used to fund programs supporting the other, intrinsic values that our research shows promotes well-being. We could have massive taxes on materialistic behaviors that damage the Earth, and thus damage the well-being of our species and the potential for future generations (and other species) to meet their own needs. For example, the taxes on houses could rise exponentially with square footage, the taxes on vehicles could rise exponentially as gas mileage decreases, etc.

Conversely, how can we reward people who make others happy?

Interesting question. Give them more opportunities to do so, for example by giving them more time off and sabbaticals. Some alternative measures of national progress (e.g., Redefining Progress’ Genuine Progress Indicator) include volunteer work and household work in their calculations. If we had national measures of progress that recognized the importance of such acts then we as a nation would come to value them more; right now the only value reflected in GNP is economic activity. Finally, many people want to engage in jobs that involve service to others (e.g., teaching, nursing, NGOs) but those jobs typically pay poorly despite the education required. Scholarships and debt relief would be helpful.

What will it take for employers to realize that happier employees are better workers? Or are they?

 I’m not very familiar with the happiness/productivity literature, but from what I understand, yes, that correlation is significant. I also believe I’ve read somewhere that depression is one of the major causes of poor work productivity in the nation. I’d also note that some European nations which have lower work hours than the U.S. are actually more productive per hour than are American workers. What is necessary is to remove employers’ single-minded focus on profit and recognize that there are other values that need to be encouraged in the world. Among them is the well-being of others. But so long as we have laws that require corporations to only consider financial profit (which is the case for publicly-traded corporations), then you have the race to the bottom in our highly competitive economic system which leads to this single-minded focus. So, I would revise the laws governing the mandates of corporations; see Marjorie Kelly’s book “The Divine Right of Capital. “

What is the most important thing for people to learn about their happiness and their life?

From my perspective, the most important thing to learn about happiness is that the research shows it doesn’t come from money, from possessions, from fame, and from image — those are all empty pursuits that only bring temporary shots of superficial happiness. Happiness comes from pursuing the interests that you have, from building good relationships with your friends and family, and from contributing to the broader world.