The earliest American definition of liberty—stated frequently by the Founding Fathers—is about constraints on personal actions: if I don’t hurt anybody else, I should be free to pursue my own will. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Despite more recent attempts to expand our understanding of freedom to include claims on one another or on government—FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech, for example, which mentioned “freedom from want”—about two-thirds of Americans still define freedom in terms of doing what they want, being able to make their own choices, or having liberty in speech and religion.

Understanding freedom is a matter of no small importance. The Founders believed that it was one of at least three fundamental rights from God, along with life and the pursuit of happiness. These three rights are interrelated: not only does liberty, of course, depend on life, but the pursuit of happiness depends on liberty. In fact, evidence shows that freedom and happiness are strongly linked. But what kind of freedom makes Americans happiest? And what can government best do to promote freedom and help us pursue happiness, as is our inalienable right?

A large body of social-science research over the past decade has been devoted to studying happiness. In general, researchers rely on self-reported measurements of happiness—which, according to considerable work by psychologists, statisticians, and neuroscientists, are actually quite accurate and comparable among individuals. (This has been shown by comparing people’s survey responses to psychological evaluations, surveys of family members, and even tests of brain activity.) And over the past three decades, the nationwide General Social Survey (GSS)—undertaken approximately every two years by researchers at the National Opinion Research Center—has been one of the only repeated surveys to ask people about their happiness and has therefore been used in many happiness studies.

In 2000, the GSS also asked adult Americans about their attitudes about freedom. About 70 percent of the respondents said that they were “completely free” or “very free,” and another 25 percent said that they were “moderately free.” Further, about 70 percent thought that Americans in general were completely or very free.

Perhaps such results are not surprising in the United States. But the GSS also revealed that people who said that they felt completely or very free were twice as likely to say that they were very happy about their lives as those who felt only a moderate degree of freedom, not much, or none at all. Even when holding income, sex, education, race, religion, politics, and family status constant, we find that people who felt free were about 18 percentage points more likely than others to say that they were very happy.

Graph by Alberto Mena.
Graphs by Alberto Mena

Freedom and happiness are highly correlated, then; even more significant, several studies have shown that freedom causes happiness. In a famous 1976 experiment, psychologists in Connecticut gave residents on one floor of a nursing home the freedom to decide which night of the week would be “movie night,” as well as the freedom to choose and care for the plants on their floor. On another floor of the same nursing home, residents did not receive these choices and responsibilities. The first group of residents—no healthier or happier than the second when the experiment began—quickly showed greater alertness, more activity, and better mood. A year and a half later, they were still doing better, and even dying at half the rate of the residents on the other floor.

Many subsequent studies replicated the experiment in different settings, including foreign ones. One 2003 study of German senior citizens asked participants to keep diaries recording their activities and moods. The researchers found that a low level of perceived personal freedom strongly predicted depression; they went on to suggest enhanced freedom for nursing-home residents as an efficient way to improve their quality of life.

The data and evidence don’t prove that all kinds of freedom bring equal happiness, or that more freedom is always better than less. For example, what about economic freedom? Pundits and politicians on the left often tell us that a free economy makes for an unhappy population: the disruptions of capitalism make us insecure, and we would prefer the security of generous welfare programs and national health care. But for most people, it turns out, that isn’t true.

To begin with, those who favor less government intervention in our economic affairs are happier than those who favor more. When asked in 2004 whether it was the government’s responsibility to improve the living standards of Americans, 26 percent of those who agreed called themselves very happy, versus 37 percent who disagreed. When asked in 1996 whether it should be “the government’s responsibility to keep prices under control,” those who said it “definitely should be” were a quarter less likely to say that they were very happy than those who said it “definitely should not be.”

You might be tempted to ascribe this correlation to the unhappy poor who favor government intervention to improve their lot. But a look at entire nations, it’s important to note, shows that freer economies mean happier populations in general. In 2002, the International Social Survey Programme measured happiness in nearly three dozen countries. In the same year, as in every year since 1995, the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation compiled the Index of Economic Freedom, scoring nations on such criteria as the freedom to operate a business, trade with other nations, ease of investment, property rights, and level of business corruption. The result was an aggregate score from 0 to 100, where 100 meant maximum freedom. Near the top, scoring around 80, were most of the Anglophone countries; most Western European countries scored in the 65–75 range; formerly Communist countries and developing nations were lower; and at the bottom sat North Korea. If you apply these data to the International Social Survey Programme’s nations, you will find that a 1-percentage-point increase in economic freedom is associated with a 2-point rise in the percentage of the population who say that they are completely happy or very happy.

Graph by Alberto Mena.

So it’s not surprising that in 1990, at the end of the Communist era, one cross-country survey found that 41 percent of Americans said that they were very happy—contrasted with just 14 percent of East Germans, 6 percent of Russians and Czechs, and 2 percent of Latvians. Of course, regimes behind the Iron Curtain were not just economically unfree; they were politically unfree as well. And like economic freedom, political freedom—democracy and participation in the democratic process—is strongly associated with happy citizens. Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer made this point convincingly in the 1990s, comparing happiness levels across various Swiss cantons, which vary dramatically in how much political participation they afford their citizens. Cantons that allowed citizens more direct democratic rights, as well as meetings with leaders to discuss political and financial matters, proved significantly happier than cantons where political access was more restricted.

Religious freedom—known to the Founding Fathers as the “first liberty”—probably brings happiness, too. That assertion is hard to test internationally because there are no widely accepted global indexes of religious freedom. It is even hard to test within the United States because no one without religious freedom exists to tell us how unhappy he might be. Yet we do know that people who support freedom for those with unusual religious beliefs are happier than those who do not. In a 2006 survey asking if respondents endorsed the right of people with antireligious views to speak publicly, those who said “no” were a third likelier than those who said “yes” to say that they were not too happy. In other words, religious tolerance—even tolerance of anti-religiousness—is strongly linked with happiness.

Furthermore, many of the happiest people in America achieve their happiness through faith. When asked in the 2000 GSS about the experiences that made them feel the most free, about 11 percent of adults put religious and spiritual experiences at the top of the list. And these people were more likely than those mentioning any other experience to say that they were very happy.

Surprisingly, one reason that religious experience is satisfying may be that religion imposes constraints on behavior—and these constraints point to a kind of freedom that isn’t conducive to happiness.

In the mid-1990s, researchers at Stanford University set up two booths in a supermarket and handed out samples of jam. One booth offered six types of jam; the second, 24. While more shoppers stopped to sample from the wider array, people who sampled from the narrower one were ten times likelier to buy a jar of jam later. In another experiment, the same researchers gave college students the opportunity to write an extra-credit essay. One group could choose from just six essay topics; the other had 30 to pick from. Those with fewer choices not only were much likelier to complete their essays; they did better work as well.

The reason that people often prefer less choice to more, psychologists believe, is that choice can overwhelm, as the costs of processing information and making a decision outweigh the gains from having more options. This idea is called the “choice overload hypothesis.” A similar concept—“moral freedom overload,” to coin a phrase—may apply in cases of moral choice. Here, too much freedom leaves us insecure and searching, unable to distinguish right from wrong, and thus miserable. And religion, which often shapes and limits people’s moral choices, is one way people have found to mitigate moral freedom overload.

The GSS again provides evidence for this claim. Do you think that a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason? You are 9 percentage points less likely to be very happy than those who do not believe in abortion on demand, and this difference persists even after correcting for your age, income, education, race, and marital status. If you think extramarital sex is “always wrong,” you are 10 points more likely to say that you are very happy than if you think it isn’t always wrong. Premarital sex, drug legalization, the social consequences of religion, you name it—on all these issues, the moral traditionalists who abridge their own freedom are happier than the moral modernists who bar themselves from little or nothing.

Many would suggest that the best way to avoid moral freedom overload is not through religion but through government power. We do have many legal prohibitions that mirror religious and ethical injunctions. Prostitution, for example, is illegal because many—perhaps most—Americans feel that it is indecent; so is incest. Various “blue laws,” mostly relating to serving and selling alcohol on Sundays, remain on the books in some states.

But using the law to enforce moral behavior—and thus, in theory, to promote happiness—can miss the mark for three reasons. First, government is better equipped to constrain people’s actions than to change their morals. Worldviews depend on culture more than on politicians. True, laws can affect culture, but principally they entice people to behave in a way that avoids penalties—or to hide their actions from the law. Not only does this do little for happiness; it also can turn immoral people into criminals. Second, though extreme licentiousness isn’t a good idea, a large body of

evidence suggests that what many would call vice (moderate alcohol use, for instance, and sex within committed relationships) is associated with much virtue—happiness, health, and prosperity. Saint Augustine himself taught that moderation is more difficult than abstinence and hence can be more virtuous. And third, of course, government restrictions on morality tend to stifle the very freedoms that make people happy. For enforcing morality, government is a terribly blunt tool, potentially stripping away large amounts of economic and political freedom in order to hone a bit of good behavior.

Is it ever appropriate for the government to abridge moral freedom? Obviously it is, when my moral license unreasonably harms you. Then it becomes a question not of protecting me from myself but of protecting you from me. Thomas Jefferson made this point explicitly when he said that “to close the circle of felicities,” the government had to “restrain men from injuring one another.” Of course, the boundary between my liberty and your harm is often fuzzy. Proponents of smoking bans believe that smokers harm others when exposing them to secondhand smoke. Opponents, by contrast, see the bans as an example of the nanny state on steroids, protecting people from their own indulgence in a relatively minor vice. Far more seriously, the pro-choice position is that abortion does not hurt a human being and is therefore a private moral matter. The pro-life camp, meanwhile, believes that the fetus is a person who deserves protection from violence, meaning that the issue is one of public, not private, morality.

But in cases where all can agree that our private, immoral behavior does not harm others, our happiness is best served with rules in our private lives that constrain our morality and protect us from excess in moments of personal weakness. The recipe for happiness is a combination of individual liberty, personal decency, and moderation. And government protects our freedom best when it forgoes infringements on our moral choices but vigorously defends our right to restrict these choices ourselves.

If the importance of liberty to happiness sounds obvious to you—as obvious as the importance of life to liberty—it’s probably because you’re an American. In many countries, you would find yourself fined, imprisoned, or worse for asserting your right to vote, worship, or even open a business as you wished. America is an oasis of happiness-producing freedom in a world that generally doesn’t believe that citizens can handle freedom and doesn’t trust them to try.

As Americans, we understand that people can be entrusted with freedom, which is why we guard it so jealously. But happiness requires that we also use freedom responsibly—which means, both as individuals and as a nation, balancing abundant private liberty with healthy personal morality.


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