The Secret to Happiness: Marriage and a Short Commute?

The blogosphere debates David Brooks' latest social commentary

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A quick scan of David Brooks's column archive reveals his proclivity for waxing philosophical about Big Themes in government and society. The New York Times pundit's latest social commentary is a treatise on happiness, which he argues is tied to personal, not professional success. Brooks posits that a healthy marriage is a leading cause of happiness, while "the daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting."

Brooks' contentions set off a power keg in the blogosphere, where a host of feminist writers attacked Brooks for "misogynistic" views. Other pundits opted for a sober analysis of his that a thriving marriage and a short commute are key to overall happiness.

  • Cutting Corners on Marriage Analysis  "Studies that compare the currently married to everyone else (which is the vast majority of marital status studies) can tell us nothing about the implications of getting married for happiness, health, or anything else," argues Psychology Today's Bella DePaulo, who debunks Brooks' methodology for measuring happiness in married couples. "That's because the currently married are the people who are left after setting aside the 40-some percent of people who got married, hated it, and got divorced."  DePaulo then gets personal. "Anyone who compares those who are currently married with others is probably cheating. Such a comparison tells you nothing about the implications of getting married."
  • 'Well... No' Outside the Beltway's James Joyner disputes DePaulo's assertion that it's "cheating" to compare the happiness of married and unmarried people.
The claim is that being married increases aggregate happiness, not that any given couple should get married. Almost by definition, being unhappily married will make you unhappy. Aside from being axiomatic, it naturally follows from Brooks’ assertions about social relationships being the primary factor in determining happiness.  If that’s the claim you’re testing, then it makes perfect sense to compare the currently married with the currently unmarried, a group that includes the never-married, the divorced, and the widowed.
  • What About Commuting? At The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer confirms that a long commute is directly correlated to unhappiness before exploring a more interesting question: Why? "One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable," he posits. "As a result, we don't habituate to the suffering of rush hour." Lehrer contends the daily unknown of commuting explains its incongruity with human happiness, quoting Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert: "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."
  • Another Reason for Congestion Pricing  Linked to approvingly by Lehrer, Think Progress' Matthew Yglesias vehemently argues that "the upshot of the commuting point is very clear—we should charge people a fee to drive on crowded roads at peak hours." On its most basic level, congestion pricing is a fiscal windfall because it "can eliminate large economic losses due to congestion." In light of Brooks' happiness analogy, Yglesias takes his argument one step further.
But when you add in the fact that commuting time makes people miserable, you can see that the social gains from congestion pricing in our most-trafficked metro areas would be extremely large.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.