If Money Can't Buy You Love—or Happiness—What Can?

These two books help us understand how the pursuit of happiness or a full identity is enhanced or diminished by being part of an organization but their anthropologies are thin and instrumental.

March 19 th 2012

The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being by Derek Bok. Princeton University Press, 2011. 272pp.

Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being by George A. Akerlof & Rachel E. Kranton. Princeton University Press, 2011. 192pp.

In Derek Bok's latest book, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being, Bok asks, "Should government make the happiness of its citizens a primary policy agenda?" It is a provocative question—especially in light of the new and burgeoning field of happiness research. Yes, believe it or not, there are scientists who spend their careers exploring what makes people happy, and why! Bok begins his book by exploring their work.

But very quickly, the reader learns that this research is complex, mixed, and even conflicting at times. For example, in general, the higher an individual's income level, the higher their reported happiness. This is not a surprise to economists who have always assumed that income was related to happiness. Longitudinal studies (studies that follow the same individuals over time), however, suggest that happiness changes little with the rise and fall of individuals' income. In addition, in the United States, satisfaction has not risen appreciably despite the fact that per capita incomes have grown steadily. What might account for these mixed findings?

The astute reader will immediately begin to hypothesize reasons for this conflicting data. When it comes to income and happiness, perhaps the direction is reversed. Perhaps happier people are just more successful—maybe it isn't that success creates happiness. Or there may be other extraneous factors that better explain the relationship between income and happiness (for instance, higher income allows for better health care and other opportunities, which are the real sources of happiness). Maybe people just report being happy when asked—a kind of social desirability bias. Despite these conflicting results, what research seems to affirm is that Americans place great stock in the belief that "money will buy happiness," despite any evidence to the contrary.

While Bok could have written an entire book just on the relationship between money and happiness, he explores six other factors that regularly emerge from the research that seem to enhance life satisfaction or happiness: marriage, social relationships, employment, perceived health, religion, and the quality of government. The experimental findings in these areas are very revealing and at times also conflicting, and Bok does a nice job discussing the experimental limitations of such research. These include (but are not limited to) the accuracy of self-report, retrospective evaluation, correlational research as opposed to true experimental design, and so on. Even with these limitations, Bok remains balanced in not letting the research say too much while not being overly dismissive.

Nevertheless, with these limitations in mind, Bok soldiers forward, making tentative suggestions about where and how public policy might enhance happiness for the general population. He writes chapters on limiting income inequality, buffering financial hardship, relieving suffering, strengthening marriage and families, enhancing education, and improving the quality and perception of government. While all these suggestions link nicely with the research on happiness, Bok is very realistic about the difficulties it would take to create policies that could actually impact these areas. For example, how would you convince a population certain that their happiness is about income and economic growth to support shifting some governmental resources from economic growth to universal health care or initiatives to support families? A related impediment to shaping public policy is the consistent finding that people are not really clear about what makes them happy, but will nevertheless continue to cling to their beliefs if they are not consistently disproved in the literature (for instance, the idea that increased wealth leads to happiness).

All of this is very interesting, but (to borrow and amend the title of one of Alasdair MacIntyre's books) one might want to ask the question, "Whose happiness? Which telos?" It is not that the pursuit of happiness is a bad idea, in general. One might argue that an overarching theme of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures seems to suggest that, given that all is vanity, the best we can do is love God and enjoy life. We should choose life, the writers advocate, and pursue happiness. And yet is this the whole witness of the Gospel? Are we essentially made to be happy? Is life in the "now and not yet Kingdom" primarily about happiness? What is the telos of this life and what are the important, and maybe even essential, subjective experiences along that telos?

Christians claim to follow a suffering servant, a man acquainted with sorrow, one despised and rejected, one who was abandoned by friends and family in his darkest hour. Christians claim to apprentice themselves to a rabbi who defeats suffering and death through suffering and death. Yes, Jesus spent a good amount of time at parties and seemed to know how to have a good time—but don't Christians define happiness a bit differently than the liberal-democratic-capitalist society? How does the Christian tradition define happiness, and for what end is it to be understood? What is the role of suffering in redemption, lament in liberation, and death in resurrection? And do Christians who might conceptualize themselves as resident aliens in exile want their government to decide an ethic and telos for them?

At the bottom of Bok's book is a clear, although buried, ethic: Happiness is the goal of life and the central feature of the Good Life. The pursuit of happiness is therefore ethical and subsequently whatever limits happiness would be unethical. But from a Christian perspective, which emphasizes justice, happiness may mean something very different.

Here is a good place to enter into dialogue with Akerlof and Kranton's Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being. Akerlof and Kranton attempt to introduce a new economic model based on individual identity. Individuals' "utility function"—what they care about and what motivates them is a large part of their identity. Akerlof and Kranton's central thesis is that organizations function well (that is, are productive) when the employees identify with them—that is, when the firm and the work in some way enhance their sense of identity. This may seem like common sense, but it's not something that has regularly been factored into economic models.

Akerlof and Kranton identify three categories that are essential to identity economics: a) social categories, b) norms and c) gains and losses in identity utility. These three categories become the formula for determining how much work or output employees will produce. For example, at any particular company/organization the social category helps us determine how much or how little the employees see themselves as insiders or outsiders of the workgroup. Depending on the type of company and the type of employees, norms are developed related to these social categories. Insiders may be motivated to put in low, medium, or high effort, depending on these norms. How the individual employees conform to these norms will determine if they make gains or losses in their identity utility.

For example, if an employee feels like an insider (social category), and he or she feels that the goals of the company (like making a high-quality product) fit with the employee's personal norms, then the employee should be motivated to put out high effort because this will create gains in his or her identity utility. But where an employee feels like an outsider (social) and/or the goals of the company are at odds with the employee's norms, the person would put out medium or low effort because to engage in high effort would lead to losses in identity utility. Akerlof and Kranton argue that these gains or losses in identity are a more powerful predictor of output than previously advanced economic models, including those related to compensation. This model provides companies with the impetus to intervene at the level of social categories or norms to enhance employee identity utility and subsequently increase productivity.

Identity should be important to Christians. For many Christian traditions, the ultimate goal of spiritual growth or sanctification is to be renewed in the image and likeness of Christ. In other words, our identity telos is Christlikeness. Another way to say this is that a Christian's identity is to be found "in Christ." While reading this book about identity and organizations, it's difficult not to think of ecclesiology. Could this model help us understand declining church attendance and waning denominational loyalty? Are Christian social categories such that individuals in the pews feel like outsiders? Or maybe the social categories and norms that Christians have adopted from the larger secular culture have caused a rift from the stated telos of the church? If there is a disconnect, then it would seem reasonable to hypothesize, according to Akerlof and Kranton's model, that laypeople are motivated to put in low effort in relation to the church because high effort would create losses in their identity utility.

While there is much to learn about identity and even the organization of church from this book, there remain a number of pressing questions. In addition to the question of identity, there is a related question: what are the anthropologies espoused in these two books? Are we consuming beings that essentially consume elements of life (higher wages, marriages, jobs, and so on) to create happiness—or are we producing beings who find our meaning in being a part of an organization or community where we produce something, maybe for the good of the organization, but ultimately for some sense of personal satisfaction (what Akerlof and Kranton call "identity utility" and maybe what Bok calls "happiness")?

These books are helpful because they may encourage Christians in the public sphere to regularly ask, "What kind of person does this economic theory or this public policy make me out to be? Does this policy or theory conceptualize the human as a consuming being, a producing being (and ultimately a product), a thinking being, or something else altogether? And how does this conceptualization of the human fit or not fit with a theological anthropology that sees human identity as found in Christ with a telos of love?"

James K. A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom can be helpful in exploring the underlying anthropologies and teloi of these two books. Smith spends most of his time debunking the tendency to conceptualize humans as primarily or essentially thinking beings—to assume that it is our thoughts or beliefs that motivate us and drive our behavior, and therefore, thought/beliefs become the central fulcrum for change, spiritual or otherwise. I don't believe Smith would mind saying it's a problem to consider humans as consumers or producers.

Smith argues that ultimately humans are lovers; our primary orientation to the world is not through knowledge, belief, consumption, or production, but through love. And our love always has an aim—a telos. The question is not will humans love, but what will they love? The aim of our love will be shaped by our embodied habits, for it is habituated behavior—ritual or liturgy—rather than thoughts/beliefs/ideas that most deeply shapes and forms whom we become. This assertion is entirely consistent with research in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychotherapy, and psychological research on child and adult attachment. The habits in which we both consciously and unreflectively engage shape the form and capacity of our love. So persons may be shaped to love in a variety of ways. Our loves can be formed in healthy and holy ways or even malformed in unholy ways. Based on the behavioral habits in which we engage, we may be shaped to love consuming or producing, and we may even be shaped to love the pursuit of happiness.

As Christians interacting with these books, the anthropological question looms: What kind of persons are we to become? How and by what are we to be shaped? Are image and likeness of Jesus and identity "in Christ" our telos? While both of these books are helpful, they may leave a reader cold. It is not that it's necessarily anti-Christian to pursue happiness or to think about how one's identity is enhanced or diminished by being part of an organization. Rather, the anthropologies found in these books are thin and instrumental. Even Bok reduces happiness to something less than the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, making it an end in itself. For the teacher of Ecclesiastes knows that even if we are to eat, drink, and experience pleasure (well-being, happiness), the more important issue is the worship of and devotion to the one who is behind it all.

Topics: Vocation Loves

Brad D. Strawn, Ph.D. is Vice President and Dean of the Chapel at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. He is an ordained clergy and a clinical psychologist. He loves Jesus and Freud.