The supermarket tabloids featured Sandra Bullock this week, as did many
mainstream media outlets. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress
and was publicly tormented by disclosures about her philandering
husband.New York Times
columnist David Brooks raises a philosophical issue:
you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal
blow?" No evidence suggests Ms. Bullock traded her marriage for the
award, but the question still resonates. Which matters most-worldly
success or personal relationships?
"If you had to take more than
three seconds to think about this question, you are absolutely crazy,"
writes Brooks, decisively favoring relationships. He alludes to research
by Canadian scientists showing Oscar winners can be expected to outlive their non-winning colleagues
four to six years. But he goes on to say teams of researchers have
consistently found that good personal relationships bring greater
happiness than monetary or professional success, and that harmonious and
trusting relationships in societies are related to better overall
health and economic growth. Brooks says being married "produces a
psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year, " and research
does show that married people live longer
than unmarried people. Research by Nicholas Christakos and James Fowles, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,
has documented the vital importance of connections and relationships to the quality of our lives. They've even shown that happiness is contagious.
Still, the outpouring of responses to Brooks's column, including a Wall Street Journal blog, letters to the editor
and hundreds of answers on line
show this complex issue touches a nerve. Readers observed that hard
driving executives and entrepreneurs who sacrificed personal lives for
careers have created institutions and inventions that benefit the rest
of us; that both love and work are crucial; and that happiness is a
mysterious condition that some find in spirituality and others find in
wealth. One writer wondered whether Brooks pondered the either/or
question when Sean Penn won an Oscar as his 20 year relationship with
Robin Wright was dissolving.
Some readers can't buy a
downgraded importance for money. "Trust me, David," wrote one, the guys
who made billions selling the worthless mortgage backed securities that
wrecked the economy are happier than the working stiffs who lost their
pensions, jobs, and homes. Another observed that money is the source of
many a marital fight.
While the relationship between happiness and income is complicated and ambiguous, as Brooks notes, studies do show interesting, creative work makes people happy
, that autonomy matters
, and that conscientiousness and career success are linked to longevity.
says government should pay attention to trust and well-being, not just
material growth. To which one readers replied, "By all accounts Hamlet
wasn't hurting financially, and look what happened to him." Money won't
buy happiness, but she worries about turning that idea into public
policy: "Depending on your perspective, you could use it to regulate
banks and the salaries of CEO's or work to get rid of the minimum wage. "
If governments created fair, stable societies, she wrote, all citizens
would have a chance to pursue happiness.
Brooks glosses over
America's growing economic inequality by asserting it "doesn't seem to
have reduced national happiness." If columnists didn't gloss over
things, they'd never finish their columns. However, centuries of
history display traumatic upheavals rooted in economic and social
inequality. And many studies have explored the sense fairness that
seems to drive both people and animals. It's not insignificant that a monkey can get pretty steamed
when a peer gets grapes for a task that only got him a slice of cucumber.
Would that this challenge were both/and
, not either/or
But not all life situations are in our control, so the question
remains: If you had to choose, would you take professional and financial
success or happy well-tended personal relationships?