Happiness, home, and commute

David Brooks had a really interesting column a couple weeks ago summarizing some of the more recent “happiness” research.  Short summary: it’s about relationships.  People make people happy:

People get slightly happier as they climb the income scale, but this depends on how they experience growth. Does wealth inflame unrealistic expectations? Does it destabilize settled relationships? Or does it flow from a virtuous cycle in which an interesting job produces hard work that in turn leads to more interesting opportunities?

If the relationship between money and well-being is complicated, the correspondence between personal relationships and happiness is not. The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing
after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

If you want to find a good place to live, just ask people if they trust their neighbors. Levels of social trust vary enormously, but countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient
government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime (regardless of whether actual crime rates are increasing or decreasing).

The overall impression from this research is that economic and professional success exists on the surface of life, and that they emerge out of interpersonal relationships, which are much deeper and more important.

Jonah Lehrer runs with the paradox of the long commute, which I’ve always found particularly interesting how people choose against their own interests.  Basically, people moving further away from work primarily for a larger house are making a mistake:

In other words, the best way to make yourself happy is to have a short commute and get married. I’m afraid science can’t tell us very much about marriage so let’s talk about commuting. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer announced the discovery of a new human foible, which
they called “the commuters paradox”. They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work…

In my book, I cite the speculative hypothesis of Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, who argues that long-distance commuters are victims of a “weighting mistake,” a classic
decision-making error in which we lose sight of the important variables:

Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. “People will think about this trade-off for a long time,”
Dijksterhuis says. “And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad.” What’s interesting,
Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They’ll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at
least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: “The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while.”

I’m pretty curious as to the exact nature of commute time and happiness.  Is it a straight linear progression?  Is there some minimum time under which it doesn’t make much difference?  I’ve had a commute of 15 minutes or less each way for all but a single year of my independent adult life (I commuted about 25 minutes from North Olmsted, OH to Oberlin, OH my 1 year there).  I enjoy my 30 minutes a day of NPR in fairly predictable and almost never too onerous traffic.  Double that, and I’m sure I wouldn’t.  I do wonder if I would or would not be substantially happier if I walked 5-10 minutes to work like my friend Mike Cobb.  He hates the world.

Chart of the Day

The daty should have been last Thursday, but I didn't get around to it.  Anyway, Anne Lowrey at the Washington Independent had the terrific idea of taking a graph of public support for budget cuts for various federal budget items and than adding to the graph the percentage of the federal budget these areas comprise.  See:

The blue bars are the percent of poll respondents who wanted to cut spending in that particular area, the red bars are the percentage of the budget that area is.  Not surprisingly, the "we just need to cut foreign aid" geniuses are out in force.  Actual percentage of budget?  <1%.  Meanwhile, you don't see that much stomach for curring Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security, which are prominent drivers of our budget. National defense, a very substantial portion of the budget, actually gets over 20% support for cuts (more bake sales for the air force?), but defense has become so politically sacrosanct, that we have the term, "non-defense discretionary spending."  (Ezra's nice take on this).  Anyway, for now lets just leave this as further proof of the problematic nature of relying on public opinion to guide public policy. 

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