Putnam: ‘Strongest predictors of happiness are social relationships’

Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, speaks about the growing opportunity gap between classes during his lecture Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater.

A marriage can cause an increase in happiness equal to a quadrupling salary. Making a good friend is equal to tripling a salary. Belonging to a club can cause an increase in happiness equivalent to doubling a salary. And going on picnics three times a year is the same as receiving a 10 percent raise.

“By now, the strongest predictors of happiness by far are our social relationships,” said Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University. “Money alone can buy you happiness, but not much.”

Putnam, who is the author of 14 books and has been a consultant to the past three U.S. presidents, said that while America’s happiness indicators have only dropped a bit overall, happiness for one-third of Americans has dropped 30 percent over the past generation.

“That’s kind of a puzzle,” Putnam said.

What Putnam and his field researchers found is that this group of the unhappiest Americans all occupy the lowest third of the income bracket.

Historically, Americans have not been concerned with billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Putnam said, because they believe everyone has a fair share chance to pursue happiness. As a country, Americans have been more worried about equality of opportunity than about equality of income.

“We’re not very unhappy about people who climb up the ladder pretty far, because we assume everyone gets on the ladder at the same rung and some of us are just better climbers,” Putnam said.

But now, Putnam argues, that equality of opportunity is poised to crumble.

“Unlike previous periods of American history when we’ve been through turbulent times, we’re really facing a grave crisis that people in America are not fully aware of,” Putnam said.

He sought to illustrate this using data and a personal narrative.

“Joe” was a firefighter who never went to college, and he raised kids who expected to graduate from high school and work on an assembly line. Putnam went to college, received graduate degrees at Yale University and Oxford University and is currently a professor at Harvard University. Though their lives went in different directions, Joe and Putnam went to the same high school in Port Clinton, Ohio, in the 1950s.

Miriam is Putnam’s granddaughter. She is the daughter of two Harvard-educated parents and currently attends university at one of the most prestigious schools in America.

“Mary Sue” is Joe’s granddaughter. Because of the great flight of the factories in Cleveland and other cities in the Rust Belt, Mary Sue’s parents never had a steady job. Mary Sue’s life “got turned upside down” when her parents split up and her mother started stripping. Mary Sue was physically abused and and neglected for days, her only companion a yellow mouse that lived in her trailer. Her boyfriend, who has two children with two different women, thinks he has found a job for her as a model in Toledo, Ohio.

Mary Sue and Miriam are the same age. They both had grandfathers from the same school in the same town — yet they could not be more different.

“Think about the futures that Miriam and Mary Sue face,” Putnam said. “They’re just not even in the same universe.

“And Mary Sue did absolutely nothing wrong — except she chose the wrong parents.”

Putnam said that this story reflects a broader, nationwide pattern that has developed over the past 30 years.

The individual numbers that makes up this data are conclusive: College-educated parents spend more time with their children, especially during their formative years. They spend thousands of dollars more per year on what Putnam called “enrichment expenditures” — trips to the zoo, expensive daycare and summer camps. Parents with college degrees also place emphasis on eating dinner together as a family, which has proven to be a strong indicator of a child’s IQ. Church attendance, youth volunteering and social connections are all elevated for children of higher-educated parents than for children of parents who have a high school diploma or less.

“Our kids, the Miriams of the world, have lots of people in their lives who want to help them in growing numbers,” Putnam said. “But that hasn’t happened for the Mary Sues of the world.”

Educational discrepancies in parents can also correlate with health risks — children of high school-educated parents are far more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke and have a greater chance of becoming obese than those of parents with more education.

“Increasingly, your chances in life are determined by that one decision that you made — without really fully realizing it — as to whether you were going to choose college-educated parents or high school-educated parents,” Putnam said.

“Think about Mary Sue’s future,” he said. “And then think, it’s not just one kid — it’s a third of our youth that are represented. I think this is a big deal.”

Putnam said there are many reasons for these declining opportunities: the collapse of the working-class family structure, a frayed social safety net in working-class neighborhoods and a “savviness gap” among lower-class parents who, for example, may not understand how to fill out college applications or forms for financial aid.

But the trends can be reversed. Putnam mentioned huge investments in early-childhood education, volunteer mentorship programs and a concentrated effort by politicians at the federal level to combat poverty and financial illiteracy as possible solutions to inequality of opportunity. If politicians look at the problem from an ideological point of view, he said, through conservative “red” or progressive “blue” lenses, they will be unable to solve it. Instead, Americans need to approach this as a “purple problem.”

“It’ll require a lot of changes,” Putnam said. “But when we fix it, we will all be happier.”


Q: Did high school-educated families collapse due to economic issues, or did economic opportunities vanish due to family structure? Is it a chicken-or-an-egg kind of discussion?

A: Yes. You will have an opportunity right here in the next 24 hours to hear that particular question debated, because I’m of the view — well, let me say, you’ll get Charles Murray’s view directly from him, so don’t take my account of it — but in general, Charles thinks that the problem is a cultural problem, he thinks it began with the Great Society and the welfare programs, and that undermined people’s sense of responsibility to their kids, and I’m happy to have you clap for it, that’s a legitimate interpretation — I have a different view. I have the view that the economic problems, which were caused from other things, not by the collapse of the American family but by globalization and technological change and so on, undermined the prospects for the next generation, and that in turn inhibited their willingness and ability to follow the traditional “get-married-first” strategy. And if you’re in Port Clinton, and you noticed that the factories closed in the 1980s and almost immediately there was this quadrupling or quintupling of the out-of-wedlock birth rates — the story that the birth rates caused the factories to go away just doesn’t make sense. So I’m more inclined — I’m not trying to one-up Charles …  he ought to get equal time — but my view is it’s mostly the underlying cause of the economic change and the cultural change came later. He’ll give you the other side of that story later.

Q: This is sort of a social media question. People say Facebook is replacing community. Kids are on it enough today, in this person’s opinion. Could you speak to the influence of Facebook — I think this could be any social media — on benefiting or harming happiness?

A: Well, that’s a really good question, and it happens I know the answer to that, and I’m going to share it with you, too. But let me — I will talk about Facebook specifically, because I’m about to brag: I am actually one of the oldest, in every sense of the world “old,” I’m one of the oldest members of Facebook, because Facebook was invented by a guy, his name is Mark Zuckerberg, who was a roommate of a kid taking my seminar that semester. So my class was a beta tester for Facebook, and I have been on there forever. I’ve got no stock, I’m kind of upset about that. Initially, Facebook was based in a particular place. There was the Harvard Facebook and the Stanford Facebook and the Princeton Facebook and so on. Can I see your hands? How many of you actually are members of, are on Facebook? Can I see your hands? Okay good, that’s great. If I were asking your children that same question, the number would be, I know it, the number would be more like 90 percent. And if I were asking your grandchildren, the answer would be 100 percent of them are on Facebook and they would find me there. I’ve been there almost forever, almost forever. And in the early years, your Facebook friends, the people that were your “friends” on Facebook, were also real friends. The people on my Facebook friends list … were my students and colleagues and I did know them. But then Facebook changed its business model, now about six or eight years ago, so that you can “friend” anybody in the world. You know, by the way, that “friend” is now a verb, “to friend” someone. If you “friend” someone, that means you send them a message saying, “I want to be your friend.” And if you’re at all visible — I happen to be a little visible — so if you’re at all visible, you get lots of requests from total strangers to be your friends. I get, I don’t know, two or three friend requests every day from total strangers. José from Barcelona last night friended me, he wants to be my friend — that sounds fine, I don’t know José from Adam, and I’ve once been to Barcelona but I don’t remember meeting José there, and honestly I’m not even sure what gender José is, and I have no idea what José has in mind for this friendship of ours, I know if I had a real friend named José in Barcelona — I mean a face-to-face friend — if I let him know that I was coming to the airport he’d show up to meet me there, probably with flowers, and I know that a real friend would, if I got sick, bring me chicken soup — not so sure about José. And the fact that, if you go to José’s Facebook page, he has 3,000 friends, makes me wonder quite what he has in mind. He may not mean by friendship the same thing I mean by. And now I’m making a serious point here: “friend” in the Facebook sense and “friend” in real friends is a different thing. I’m now answering exactly your question, because there’ve been some interesting studies about the effects of “friends” and friends in happiness. And it turns out that each friend you have, each additional friend you have, has a huge effect on your happiness. The more real friends you have, up to some pretty high number, if you have 19 close friends and you add a new friend, you will become happier. I can tell you actually, with the right equation, exactly how much happier that will make you. So if you have a graph in which you have happiness this way, and number of friends this way, each additional friend, that line goes up like that . What do you suppose the line looks like for Facebook friends? That is, each additional Facebook friend, how much happier does that make you? I can tell you what that line looks like: It’s completely flat. The second Facebook friend does not make you any happier, and the 424 Facebook friends doesn’t make you any happier than when you had no Facebook friends. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t have Facebook friends, but I’m saying José is not going to have a powerful effect on my happiness.

Q: This is sort of a two-part question. One question has to do with … does the phenomena — I think they’re referring to the bottom-third phenomena you were talking about — is that an American phenomena, or do you see it in other countries? And the following question is, are there any communities in America that are putting in place strategies to help close this gap?

A: The first question is, we don’t quite yet know for sure because … this focus on this gap is something that I and a few other people have been talking about recently, and people in other countries have only recently began to ask the question “Do we see this gap?” The second thing is, just from a technical, methodological point of view, you can only show the gap if there were really smart researchers 30 years ago who asked the right questions. I’m only able to show you the gap because there were people 30 years ago who were asking those questions, and I can show you the trend, and America has the good fortune — some people think it’s bad fortune — but a good fortune of having lots of people who’ve done survey research over the years, and that means we have a rich store of … It’s like, if you’re trying to do climate change, we know a lot more about the archaeological history of social relations in America than people in most countries do, and therefore we can spot these gaps more quickly. We don’t yet know in the other countries, there’s a lot of people, and there’s some suggestion in the U.K., I’ve been in discussions with members of Downing Street because there is some suggestion there that they see the same gap. Are there places in America that are fixing or are likely to fix the problem? That’s the part of our research we have not gotten to. That’s exactly the right question; I think there are certainly things you could do. If you think of the kids in your town, the bottom-third kids in your town, as your kids, I mean really do think of them as your children or grandchildren, it’s not … out-of-the-blue to figure out how would you help them? Well, how would you help your own grandchildren? You’d kind of spend some time and you’d invest time in them, and the most important thing is a regular trustworthy presence. Mary Sue did not need a weekly $10 check; she needed a daily 10-minute hug. She needed someone who she could trust to be there. Her grandfather played a little bit of that role, which is why he’s the only person she trusts. You can be somebody’s hugger. And I don’t mean occasionally showing up once a fortnight if you happen to have a free moment. I mean being there, because that’s what’s missing in these kids’ lives. So there a lot of things we can do, there are other kinds of organized activities, and you could support universal early childhood education.

Q: I think this might be our last question. Have you studied the role of extended families within the trends you showed?

A: Yeah … Could Aunt Susan do the same thing that Mary Sue’s missing mom might have done? We’ve certainly looked at that a little bit. It’s a little harder to actually look at it seriously and scientifically because we don’t have the … same good evidence on aunts and uncles and grandparents, I mean hard evidence, how big a role they play in their kids’ lives a generation ago. I don’t doubt they played a big role — they played a big role in my life, and probably your life, some aunt or uncle or grandma or something. So I think that extended family is important, but we don’t have the good hard data. Our strong hunch, from little bits and pieces of evidence, is if we included measuring that kind of support network, actually, the gap would have grown even more rapidly. That grandparents like us, and remember, I’m talking about us as being the upper-third, we’re probably pretty involved in the lives of our kids, I mean grandchildren, maybe even more involved in our grandchildren’s lives than our grandparents were in our lives … And there’s a little bit of that for Mary Sue – remember, her grandfather is the only trustworthy person in her life. But our general impression is that line has gone down. Our general impression is, if we took into account extended families, the problem would not — it would not make the problem go away, but we don’t actually know that for sure.

—Transcribed by Kaitrin McCoy

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