Charles Murray is happy. He has devoted time and effort to figuring out what makes that happiness possible and what government, social class, and even pure circumstance have to do with it.
The core institutions and factors essential to happiness, he finds, are not lining up well for everyone in America.
Today at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater, Murray will lecture on the intersection of social class and happiness as part of Week Four’s theme, “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
Although Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, dabbles in happiness, it primarily addresses cultural inequality within the new class system; In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, a book Murray published in 1993, directly reflects the discourse on Jeffersonian happiness featured on the Amp stage this week.
Murray’s lecture will present a synthesis of his thoughts from In Pursuit, dealing with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Murray’s own framework on the four realms of happiness from Coming Apart: family, vocation, community and faith. Murray will then discuss how the pursuit and achievement of happiness have changed, becoming different for each social class.
In In Pursuit, Murray wrote that looking back on one’s life and feeling satisfaction at age 70 is the test of whether one has lived a satisfying life.
“At the time I said that, of course, 70 was a long ways away,” Murray said. “Well, now I’m 70. The questions is, can I look back and be satisfied with who I’ve been and what I’ve done, and the answer is yes. At the time I wrote the book, I was very wound up in my career. … Now, I’ve attached considerably more importance to my wife and children and grandchildren than I do to the fact that I’ve written a number of books.”
In classifying his own happiness, Murray mentions two of the four categories he relates in his book: family and vocation. The problem is that not every family is a happy one, and not every vocation is a successful one.
Murray writes in Coming Apart that self-reported happiness has declined significantly in poor and working-class communities since the 1970s, but not in the more wealthy brackets of American society. Is it the case, then, that money can buy happiness?
“The core institutions through which people live satisfying lives … have all taken a big hit in working-class America,” Murray said. “So those reductions [in self-reported happiness] are very understandable. It’s not that money can buy happiness; it is that the upper-middle class in the United States has done a lot better job of sustaining the vitality of these institutions through which people live satisfying lives.”
Murray points to the increase in rates of divorce and unemployment and the decrease of religiosity as key contributors in this trend toward unhappiness and social dissatisfaction among the poorest 30 percent of Americans.
The most affluent 20 percent, Murray argues, lead much happier lives because of their ability to foster marriage, religion and other important institutions. In Coming Apart, he urges what he calls the “cognitive elite” to emerge from their homogenous bubbles and preach what they practice to the less fortunate.
For example, the average Chautauquan, he said, may spend the summer at the Institution but will return home to communities such as the Upper East Side of New York City, McLean, Va., or Weston, Mass.
“Weston is a beautiful little town,” Murray said, “but it is also surrounded by other beautiful little towns that constitute together several hundred thousand people, all of whom are in ZIP codes that are in the top few percentiles of wealth and education in the entire country. How, if that’s the life you’re living, do you stay in touch with mainstream America?”
What makes the right to the pursuit of happiness so difficult to pin down, Murray said, is that it is the right to a capability, not to a thing. Rather than giving an individual the right to earn a certain income or to own a certain item, the right to be happy necessitates only a framework in which happiness can be pursued. For Murray, the conception of limited government was the closest America has come to the ideal framework for the pursuit of happiness, and that idea has only gone downhill in recent times.
The individual does need help from the government, Murray said. He argues that perhaps the government’s most important role is to ensure a safe environment for its citizens.
“But it’s also the case that I believe there is a role, at least in contemporary society, for the government to think about how they can assist so that people have a decent material existence,” Murray said. “But, and here’s the key thing, you then have to say: How does whatever the government does to help provide a decent material existence interact with the requirement that people have self-respect?
“When you try to help in one way, you affect some of the other enabling conditions, too, in negative ways. When are you doing more harm than good?”