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Now Zad: Are Afghans Happier Than Americans?

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Are Afghans happier than Americans? Would you be happy if your native land had been torn to bits by warfare for thirty years, and at least one and probably more of your family members had met with violent death, possibly at the hands of people who said they were there to help you? And yet, and yet...

In the March 22, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews two books that deal with the subject of happiness, and what makes people happy or unhappy. One of the books, Happiness Around the World: the Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, was written by Carol Graham, who teaches public policy at the University of Maryland. Among the subjects she researched for the book were Afghans, and she found, rather surprisingly, that the Afghans are, as a population, pretty happy. We reported in this space a few weeks back about a public opinion poll that found Afghans to be quite optimistic about the future and (unlike many Americans) well satisfied with their government, which outsiders rank as one of the world's most corrupt. So in that context, Graham's findings validate the poll results. How can this be so?

Both of the authors whose books Kolbert reviewed, Graham and former Harvard president Derek Bok (The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being), agreed that mere material wealth, or even sudden good fortune, such as a lottery win, does not make people happier. Kolbert also cites an earlier book, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, which found that people tend to misjudge what they think will make them happy. When they finally get what they anticipate will make them happy, they are let down to discover it ain't as great as they thought it would be.

The Afghans, as a population, certainly don't have material wealth. Many of them live outside, or on the margins of, the money economy. As a population they have suffered horribly through the Soviet occupation, the mujaheddin wars, the Taliban, and now the U.S. occupation, which continues to claim far too many lives of innocent civilians. Afghans have no right to be happy, and yet many of them seem to be, according to Graham and a statistically-valid opinion poll. Maybe they are happy to simply be alive, after all the death and destruction of the past three decades. Maybe they take some comfort in knowing that there is no down for them; they are already flat on the deck with nowhere to go but up, so fear of falling doesn't get under their turbans.

I thought of all this as I read Michael Buonocore's Opinionator blog in the online March 18 New York Times. Buonocore, now doing grad studies at Harvard, served four years as a Marine Corps officer and for seven months was the executive officer of a Marine company in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. For months Buonocore's Lima Company patrolled the Now Zad district, which had been empty of Afghans since 2006 when heavy fighting between the Taliban and British forces caused virtually all civilians to flee. Buonocore and his men were demoralized by the seeming futility of their mission, patrolling an empty landscape while taking casualties from IEDs and Taliban attacks. Then, near the end of his tour, Afghan civilians began resettling Now Zad. They were drawn back by small promises: the Marines paid able-bodied men and boys to clean up the debris of war; a handful of shopkeepers saw opportunity in the paychecks of the Afghan National Army soldiers who were there with the Marines. By the time Buonocore left, around 2,500 of Now Zad's 30,000 former inhabitants had come back to start again, and what brought them back was not some wasteful USAID project where much of the money goes to Western advisers and consultants. What brought them back was, relatively speaking, a handful of peanuts, next to nothing. But next to nothing is more than nothing, and it was enough to give the returnees a sense of hope, opportunity, and -- who knows? -- maybe even a measure of happiness.