Commentary

Christensen: In pursuit of everyone's happiness

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 24, 2013 

— An 1890s-era vacation this summer seemed just the ticket to recover from the past year.

So off my wife and I went to Chautauqua Institute, a village of Victorian cottages, condos and hotels on a lake, not far from Lake Erie, that was started by the Methodists in 1874 as a way to uplift the mind and the spirit.

Chautauqua is not only a physical place, but it is also an idea. Started as teaching camp for Sunday school teachers, it grew into an adult education movement that spawned similar facilities around the country and invented the book club. The idea was that learning should be a lifelong experience and that the benefits of the arts, education, religion and recreation could be extended to the middle class – not just the leisure class.

This is not everybody’s cup of tea. Think of it as vacationing in an Ivory Merchant movie, where people sit around listening to talks by great authors (Margaret Atwood and Karen Armstrong) or great scholars, where there is a symphony, opera or play every night, where one can catch a glimpse of a U.S. Supreme Court justice over lunch (Anthony Kennedy), or participate in an early morning service.

It was at Chautauqua that Franklin Roosevelt gave his famous “I hate war speech.” Mark Twain spoke here, as did Ulysses S. Grant, Susan B. Anthony and Thurgood Marshall. Theodore Roosevelt once called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”

Pursuing happiness

Chautauqua picks a theme for each of the nine summer weeks it is open. The week we were there the topic was “The Pursuit of Happiness” as in what our founding fathers meant by it, the neuroscience behind happiness, what the religions have to say about it and so forth.

Among other things, said Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, studies have shown that marriage can cause an increase in happiness equal to a quadrupling of salary; making a good friend is equal to tripling a salary; and belonging to a club can cause an increase equivalent to a doubling of your salary.

“The strongest predictors of happiness by far are our social relationships,” said Putnam.

Happiness is a broad topic, which can lead anywhere. One of the most interesting avenues of discussions about the state of American society was between two of the nation’s leading thinkers – Putnam and political scientist Charles Murray.

Blue-collar straits

Even though Putnam is a progressive and Murray is a libertarian, they both agree on the problem. (First, they took race off the table and only talked about white America.) They both agreed – talking on different days – that middle-class America is doing reasonably well by most measures and that blue-collar America is in dire straits.

With the collapse of so many manufacturing jobs, there has been an implosion of working-class America. Real income is falling, divorces are rising, out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing, juvenile delinquency rates are increasing, church attendance is down, drug use is up, the poverty rate is climbing. The unhappiest Americans occupy the lowest third of the income bracket.

The great divide in America, Putnam argues, is no longer race, but class.

“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,” said Putnam, who has advised three U.S. presidents and three British prime ministers.

Murray said the four “institutions of meaning” – family, community, vocation and faith – are all falling through the floor for the white working class.

White working-class marriage rates dropped from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent in 2010, just 50 years later, Murray said. Upper-middle class marriage rates are holding steady at 84 percent.

“Unmarried dads don’t coach Little League teams,’ Murray said. “And unmarried moms who are doing double duty don’t have time to go PTA meetings.”

Different solutions

Putnam thinks the trends can be reversed with large public investments in early-childhood education, volunteer mentoring programs and federal efforts to combat poverty and financial illiteracy.

Murray thinks the culture needs to be changed to put more emphasis on work. He said government should never make public assistance more attractive than working because there is “a transcendent value” in a person living a self-sufficient, successful life. He said the U.S. should be wary of the “Europe syndrome” where many of the governments try to do things that people should do for themselves.

Putnam said the problem of America’s working class is difficult enough, that it should not be viewed through a simple blue or progressive lens or a conservative or red lens. It is, Putnam said, a “purple problem” requiring the best minds of every political persuasion.

It is for such conversation, that one vacations at Chautauqua.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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