The pleasure of work: We cherish most what we gain by honest effort

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke declares that economists should focus not just on material benefits from economic activities. They should study the enhancement of individual well-being, of happiness as well.

Indeed, the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle said that happiness is “the most noble, and most pleasant thing in the world.” Aristotle could easily have added: Nothing exceeds the happiness that flows from the fruits of one’s honest efforts. Because it is widely seen as a means to happiness, economists tend to emphasize the consumption of goods and services as the overwhelming goal in living.

But coupled with this is the fact that journalists and pundits are strongly inclined to dooming people in poverty to perpetual unhappiness, a Marxian quagmire of hopelessness with never-ending welfare. Not only is this outlook mistaken, it tends to promote despair and defeatism among these less fortunate.

FOR EXAMPLE, the journal Science recently reported the results of an experiment involving the movement of 2,000 low-income families from poor areas into mixed-income neighborhoods. Interestingly, while no improvements in their economic well-being were found, a surprisingly significant increase in happiness was readily apparent. Evidently, among the poor there is opportunity for expanding their quality of life without necessarily achieving significant material success.

Moreover, it is not well-known that, had Bernanke’s suggestion been heeded by White House economists, a very controversial decree by President Obama could have been avoided: the one revoking the successful welfare-to-work program.

This program, instituted by the Clinton administration, mandates that at least half of welfare recipients be working, or in training to improve job skills, to be eligible to receive benefits. By executive decree, and if states opt to do so, Obama has suspended this part of the requirement. Such a decree hardly increases recipient incentives to enhance well-being.

We begin our lives with unequal resources, talents and skills. With proper incentives we engage in education, training and the gaining of experience, which help overcome these limitations. Each step leads to increases in immediate satisfactions and to happiness. Ultimately, these processes bring increases in income which, if saved, leads to long-run improvements in personal wealth as well.

The belief that these successes – these little steps to higher levels of satisfaction – are not within the reach of the poor is one of the biggest myths of our current political-journalistic culture: needlessly discouraging individuals from attempting to move forward, thus denying them the happiness from achieving even minor successes – or, as the hackneyed expression has it, the “simple things in life.”

IN SUSPENDING this program, it is difficult to think of a more crippling deterrent to the development of self-improvement incentives among the poor. It also denies them the opportunity to realize the fruits of their honest efforts – the modest successes and increases in pride, and the satisfactions and happiness that the program provides.

In our lifelong search for happiness, very few of us hit home runs. But the view that most of the poor are consigned to a life of unending despair not only is discouraging but false, and breeds needless feelings of hopelessness. Such perspectives, while unintentionally cruel, mask the opportunities lying within the poor’s grasp; those little things mean a lot.

This echoes Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who writes in her memoir My Beloved World: “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” And Obama’s economists could apply Bernanke’s counsel by giving more attention to the satisfactions – the happiness that springs from individual achievement.

(The writer is a professor emeritus of financial economics at the University of Georgia. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)

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peace4784 01/27/13 - 05:17 pm
When was the last time the

When was the last time the letter writer worked for $7 to $10 per hour. It's easy to pontificate when your belly is full and you feel finacially secure. Governments are buried in debt and technicaly bankrupt and are placing the burdern on the working poor.

Techfan 01/27/13 - 09:20 am
Oh, the humanity! If it was only true:

"very controversial decree by President Obama could have been avoided: the one revoking the successful welfare-to-work program"

The Walltons seem very happy to have worked for, excuse me, inherited a combined wealth greater than 40% of Americans combined.

soapy_725 01/27/13 - 10:58 am
The writer seems to be talking about the

Protestant Work Ethic. That much maligned credo of honoring God, family, hard work, self reliance and thrift. When you want a slave population, these tidbits of personal freedom and empowerment have to go.

Woodrow Wilson began the process of cleansing our education system from this Anglo Myth. The results are remarkable. Being cool and ignorant is praised. Being educated and success focused is maligned.

Earthly governments have always know how to control their slaves. Raise them by the Mushroom Theory. Keep them in the dark and feed them sh_ _.

ymnbde 01/27/13 - 01:27 pm
Oh the humanity! It's true!

That 40% seem more than happy to accept, excuse me, take, steal, the combined work of the other 60%.

Darby 01/27/13 - 03:29 pm
Please, someone save us from the flawed liberal....

mind that would have us live in a world where resources are limited and in a constant state of flux, being continually redistributed by a benevolent government in order to "keep things fair".

This is techfan's version of Utopia.

In this world, there is never the need to strive to better one's self, to prepare for your own or your family’s future. No imperative to invent or innovate. No requirement to sustain or improve your own lifestyle. For that matter, there is no need to even feed or clothe yourself or your children. In the progressive view, that’s what the government is for.

All the individual must do is come running when his EBT card is refreshed. Not unlike the way our cats come running when they hear the can opener start up.

Still, in the Obama and techfan version of reality, one has to wonder…. If we are all equal, who’s operating the can opener? And who fills the can?

Jane18 01/27/13 - 03:47 pm
Working For, Accomplishing= Happiness

What is soooo sad Mr. Beranek, is, the takers and gimme's of this country will never know that feeling of "true happiness"! They flit around doing their thing, spending our money, having their so-called good times, but there will always be an emptiness they never filled. As I said... so sad!!

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 01/27/13 - 09:14 pm

You can see that I am coming to this column late in the evening after a physically and emotionally draining day. Dr. Beranek has offered a column filled with wisdom and logic. I hope to read it tomorrow and comment when I have more energy. There is truth up there.

Willow Bailey
Willow Bailey 01/27/13 - 09:29 pm
The REAL problem of doing

The REAL problem of doing nothing is that you never know when you are finished; whether you are satisfied with your endeavor; or whether you could improve on it.

Personally, I was born busy and I like it like that. When I am gone, to those that really know me; there will be no doubt, that I was fully here.

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 01/27/13 - 09:54 pm
Thumbs Down

Wow, there have been a lot of thumbs down posted here and over on Grady Adams' thread just in the past thirty minutes. I assure you, it was not I.

bubbasauce 01/28/13 - 11:59 am
Yes I think there are a lot

Yes I think there are a lot of freeloaders reading today. Must be very relaxing on their 7th day off this week, or is it their 1st day off this week? Very confusing not having a job I guess. I may try that one day!

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