061: Carol Graham – The Power of Hope

Carol Graham is interim Vice President and Director of the Economic Studies program at Brookings, College Park Professor at the University of Maryland, and a Senior Scientist at Gallup. Her books include: The Power of Hope: How Wellbeing Science Can Save us from Despair , The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being , and Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires , among others.

Today, she joins the show to expound on her passion for helping to improve the lives of others, the power of mentorship and the connection between hope and life satisfaction.

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Key Takeaways

00:54 – Jonathan introduces today’s guest, Carol Graham, who joins the show to discuss her background as an immigrant from Peru, why America is no longer the land of opportunity, and her passion for helping to improve lives and end poverty

15:41 – Measuring hope and life satisfaction

22:20 – Why hope matters

31:36 – The power of mentorship

36:27 – How do we manage for hope

42:47 – The impact of technology and social media on despair

51:04 – One thing Carol would change about the system

54:20 – One thing Carol would like others to know about her and the one question she would want to know the answer to

56:24 – Jonathan thanks Carol for joining the show and lets listeners know where to connect with her

Tweetable Quotes

“More recently, I would say what has been eroding our democracy in part is that erosion of our shared cohesiveness as a society and the shared belief that people used to have that they could get ahead, that this was the land of opportunity. And it’s really not.” (06:14) (Carol)

“Less happy people care more about money. Happy people care more about learning and creativity.” (14:26) (Carol)

“Hope is really linked to better future outcomes for people. People who have hope for the future end up doing better in life. It’s not rocket science. If you believe you have a future, you’re more likely to invest in it.” (22:35) (Carol)

“Despair actually takes people’s agency away. And it isn’t just their income or their employment. It’s their ability to conceive of a different future and to do something about it.” (34:42) (Carol)

“People with low levels of well-being have worse outcomes in life. And part of it is because low levels of well-being affect your behavior.” (38:53) (Carol)

“To get people out of their isolated, desperate shells and back into the community is a first step. It’s the first step towards restoring meaning and purpose in life which, again, starts to restore hope.” (49:24) (Carol)

Guest Resources

Carol’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carol-graham-45a2a82a/

Carol’s Profile on Brookings: https://www.brookings.edu/experts/carol-graham/

Carol’s Email: cgraham@brookings.edu

Carol’s Books:

Improving the Odds: Political Strategies for Institutional Reform in Latin America: https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Carol_Graham_Improving_the_Odds?id=r9B5DwAAQBAJ&hl=en&gl=US

Safety Nets, Politics, and the Poor: Transitions to Market Economies: https://www.amazon.com/Safety-Nets-Politics-Poor-Transitions/dp/0815732287

Private Markets for Public Goods: Raising the Stakes in Economic Reform: https://www.amazon.com/Private-Markets-Public-Goods-Economic/dp/0815732295

Happiness and Hardship: Opportunity and Insecurity in New Market Economies: https://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Hardship-Opportunity-Insecurity-Economies/dp/0815702418

Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires: https://www.amazon.com/Happiness-Around-World-Miserable-Millionaires/dp/0199606285

The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being: https://www.amazon.com/Pursuit-Happiness-Economy-Well-Being-Brookings/dp/0815724047#:~:text=Book%20details&text=In%20The%20Pursuit%20of%20Happiness,happiness%22%22%20into%20public%20policymaking

Happiness for All?: Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream: https://www.amazon.com/Happiness-All-Unequal-Pursuit-American/dp/0691204551

Other Books Mentioned:

Our Kids: https://www.amazon.com/Our-Kids-American-Dream-Crisis/dp/1476769907

Mindful Money Resources

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Episode Transcription

Jonathan DeYoe: Hi there. Welcome back. On this episode of the Mindful Money podcast, I’m chatting with Carol Graham. Carol is interim vice president and director of economic studies at the Brookings Institute, College park professor at the University of Maryland, and a senior scientist at Gallup. And there’s this long list of books, and I’m not even going to touch on all of them, but I want to give you a quick background here. I’m going to start older and work up to today here. So she wrote the book improving the ods, safety nets, politics and the poor, private markets for public goods, raising the stakes in economic reform, happiness and hardship, opportunity and insecurity in new market economies, happiness around the world, the paradox of the happy peasants and miserable millionaires, which I think that’s the greatest title ever, the pursuit of happiness, an economy of well being, happiness for all, unequal lives and hopes in pursuit of the american dream. And she’s also published a lot of other things and co authored some things and edited some other things and been in lots of journals and all areas of social science and economic behavior and population and health, psychology and economics. But I wanted her on the podcast because I wanted to talk about her most recent book, which is the power of Hope, how well being science can save us from despair. Princeton University Press in 2023. With all that, Carol, welcome to the Mindful Money podcast.

Carol Graham: Thank you, Jonathan. I’m really happy to be on. And with a title like mindful money and your interest in what kind of things that being mindful about money and how you spend it and how that links to, I think, human behavior and human well being, it seems like it’s great to try and contribute to that discussion or the series of discussions that you have.

Jonathan DeYoe: Thank you so, first of all, where do you call home? Where are you calling in from?

Carol Graham: I work in DC at Brookings, and I live in Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, but not the eastern side, the western side, so near Annapolis, Maryland. So my work home is DC, my home is on the bay in Maryland. Uh, we lived in DC for a long time, but we’re now in my parents’old house because the only way I could keep it when my dad died was to move. So I moved me and the kids there. But I actually was born in Peru, so that’s another home place I call home. And I grew up in a kind of a background where my mother was French and Swiss, but born in Peru, and then we moved. My dad was american and peruvian and had an institute for malnourished infants in Peru, which he started the year I was born. I was the last of six kids, so I grew up with sort of public health and know in my orbit from day one. But we moved to Baltimore because he went to Hopkins to join the med school faculty. And we were a bit of fish out of water in Baltimore. My mother, with nobody could figure out what language she spoke, much less where she was from, because English was like her fifth language and nobody knew where Peru was in North Baltimore at the. But. So I feel very lucky to have lived and been exposed to a lot of different, um. So home is a complicated concept.

Jonathan DeYoe: Uh, especially before you moved to Baltimore, what kind of money lessons did you learn growing up? Or how old were you when you moved to Baltimore?

Carol Graham: Three. So probably not a lot of money. When we moved, I didn’t speak English, so I think I learned English in going to nursery school, not being able to speak it, but kids that age. I mean, my dad had spoken to me in English, but I grew up in Spanish. Ah, we still have peruvian food, and my kids speak Spanish, and it’s very much part of our lives. So money has always been something that I’ve thought more about in terms of, for people that don’t have it and how they cope. And over time, I’ve worked much less on poor countries than on the US, precisely because we seem to have a paradox of miserable. Not so much miserable millionaires, but miserable working class. And at the same time, inequality no longer being a sign of opportunity where you can go, but really just being a sign of advantage for the rich and disadvantaged, for the poor. And as we know, our intergenerational liability has dropped a lot in terms of rates. And when I was growing up, I thought of the US as the place as much as I love being in Peru, I used thought of the US as sort of the place of stability, right? The economy seemed on track. We had hyperinflation in Peru, the democracy worked. We had military coups and all kinds of things. And over time, I don’t want to say it’s totally flipped, but there are a lot of big concerns about how unequal our society is and the spillover effects of that, and how rich, the very rich are and how that also makes a lot of things seem out of reach for even normal people, and actually does make certain things out of reach, because the private school tuitions go up, college tuitions go up, and certain people can afford it, and other people can’t even think of it. There are all kinds of spillover effects. And then, more recently, I would say what has been eroding our democracy, in part, is that erosion of our shared cohesiveness as a society and the shared ability of people, or at least the shared belief that people used to have that they could get ahead, that this was a land of opportunity. And it’s really not. And you can measure inequality with money metrics, but I’ve been more recently trying to measure it in terms of different qualities of life, life, different hopes and expectations. It’ll be.

Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah. Uh, just before we dig into the book, I was wondering if you could give us the background of the work, because you’ve written a lot of things. That’s why I want to list all those things, and they’re kind of all in that same space. So what is it that all that stuff together comes to? This idea of hope versus despair, and what leads to that book?

Carol Graham: So, one of the things. Well, I spent a lot of time, as you can tell from the titles of my early books, trying to figure out how we could improve conditions, uh, and including conditions for success for more people in developing countries, how we could reduce poverty, not through handouts, but creating systems that allowed people to participate in their own lives, participate in society, and to thrive and flourish, would be the words and well being. But ultimately, more and more money does not buy more and more happiness. But if people are destitute, if they’re so poor that they can’t plan what the next day looks like, what’s the next negative shock going to be? And they’re always in a survival mode, that sort of stress, actually, there’s a lot of literature on it now, that kind of living makes it very difficult for people to plan ahead, to even think about opportunities. Right. And so, over time, I was looking at poverty in different contexts, a lot in Latin America, because that’s where I’m from. And I found, and still find the Latin Americans to being a very hopeful having. Of sharing a very hopeful culture, having a sort of joa de viv and really valuing quality of life, music, good food, all those things Latin Americans do not eat in their cars as they’re running to the next meeting. And then studying poverty in other contexts where it was much less hopeful. And it was really depressing, even though the people were less materially deprived. One of the most stark examples were the first times I traveled to countries in the former Soviet Union after the wall. You know, people had no freedom and very little room to be creative, but they were taken care of, and probably to a flaw in a way. So what I found was remarkable was that when people in countries like Poland or Ukraine, the then Ukraine, fell into poverty, they didn’t have a crafty solution to try and help them get out of it. They sat home and waited for the government to do something about it, because the government had always done something about it. And then the government didn’t come right. And I found that much harder to grapple with, really, than the kind of more material deprivation, but higher levels of, uh, both hope. And one of the things that separates or makes hope important is that it comes with agency. It’s not. You just believe things will be better, you think you can make things better, and that’s what the latin american poor do. I mean, they’ll walk across our stupid border to make their lives better, right? But over time, I also coming back to the United States, probably starting after about 2010, I lived here and worked here for most of my career, and had, uh, college, did college here, and PhD in England. So it’s not as though I was only in Peru, but I do go regularly. And I kept coming back to the United States thinking, what is so hard about being poor here? And in part, it is materially more difficult to be. You know, if you’re poor in Peru, you don’t really need heating. I mean, the winter is a little damp and cold, but you’re not going to freeze. To know you can take public transportation. It might be one of those little micro, uh, buses where you’re smushed in like sardines, but people will do anything to get to work and get a better job. And yet here, so many places, if you don’t have a car, you can’t do anything, right? And if you don’t have health care, which many poor people in this country don’t. You’re also saddled with a lot of problems and a lot of potential negative shocks that say you have a sick kid or something like that, a, uh, cycle that you can’t, vicious cycle that you can’t get out of. And then the other thing I think that really drives it is the stigma that we have. I mean, we act as though giving transfers to needy people is some awful thing and do everything to reduce their ability to get them, which is really perverse from just even a self interest point of view from a society, right? But it’s also the old american dream myth. You work hard, you get ahead. It’s a very individualistic vision of life. And it worked very well for the people that had decent jobs, decent blue collar jobs, as well as white collar jobs. Uh, and it tended to be whites who had privileged access to those blue collar jobs. And so the idea was that if you were poor, you were poor because it was your fault, you hadn’t worked hard. You know, we know that’s not usually the case. And we also know that very wealthy people have often had luck in their lives, right? Like Bob, um, Frank Cornell. Robert Frank is a great friend of mine and a really neat economist. He’s written a whole book on luck, right? And how people forget that story. Know, most wealthy people probably worked hard to get wealthy, but they’ve also had lucky breaks. And it’s harder to have negative shocks if you’re well endowed or know it’s easier to navigate them. And then also even the old Horatio alder story, the poor boy who got ahead, he had a benefactor. I mean, come on. But that gets forgotten. And so one of the reasons I think that I started really worrying about the US is that not only was that the case, but that all of a sudden we had premature, uh, the so called deaths of despair, and we had our politics sort of falling apart. And a lot of things that made me, for the first time in my life, start to be really worried about the US and what was going on. And so that’s kind of how I got to where I got. Last thing, I, uh, fell into work on happiness by mistake. I was looking at people in Peru coming out of poverty, and I thought, I wonder how they think they’re doing. Because it was a time that early 2000 when everybody was saying globalization is bad for the poor and protesting against the World bank and all this stuff. And I thought, well, I don’t know. They seem to be doing pretty well because Peru was growing very fast at that. During the time period uh, data for both people’s income. And then, uh, we interviewed them about their perception. So we knew how well they’d done or badly they’d done in objective income terms. So a lot of people were coming out of poverty at an amazing rate. And yet over half the people who did the best said their economic situation today was bad or very bad. And a lot of the poor rural people who’d had no income change said their situation was the same or better. I, uh, was like, what? So part of it is indeed kind of changing aspirations. And as you get out of poverty, you become more aware of, actually how much more other people have lots of things. But there was also sort of personality traits interacting less. Happy people care more about money. Happy people care more about learning and creativity. All these things I found out exposed. But when I found it, I couldn’t explain these findings. I called them my happy peasants and frustrated achievers, which turned into the miserable millionaires, I suppose. And I fell, um, in. I was incredibly lucky to be working at Brookings, but also we had some neat visitors at the time. George Ackerloff, Danny Kahneman. Really, the few know. It was a teeny group of economists collaborating with know, God forbid. And then Danny won the Nobel Prize in economics as the first psychologist to do so. That gave us some momentum and confidence. But mainly after a lot of hard work, people realized, maybe this isn’t so crazy after all. But for a long time, for the first, I would say, decade that I worked on, um, happiness and well being in economics, people thought I was borderline nuts.

Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah, well, of course, you were not the rational man. Literally, man theory is sort of not at all.

Carol Graham: And actually, people would say, oh, no, your income must be variable, it must be mismeasured or whatever. They just couldn’t accept that maybe m income wasn’t the only thing that mattered.

Jonathan DeYoe: So, uh, how do you end up measuring hope? Like, what is the thing that you measure?

Carol Graham: It’s a bit like. So, the basic measurements that we know the most about, the basic one of all is life satisfaction. How satisfied overall with your life. And that can be on a zero to ten scale in general. Right. Uh, at your life in general, that’s a cognitive assessment. And people think about their life as a whole. Right. So if they’re young, they think ahead, and if they’re old, they look back. And yes, money matters to how people answer that question, because if you have been able to choose what you want to do in life, you’re going to be a lot more satisfied with it. If you want to be an artist or you’re a truck driver. It’s not the great, but really quickly. And that can we also use another scale, uh, called the cantral ladder, which is 11.0 to ten. And people compare their life to the best possible life they can imagine. That’s another way of measuring life satisfaction. So the way you measure hope is a little more messy. There’s a future life satisfaction where. What’s the best possible life you can imagine? Where do you think your life will be in five years? So that’s pretty open ended. And it requires hope to say, your life is going to be better than your current score in five years. But then we’ve tried to. Because measuring hope is a newer dimension of well being, we try and benchmark it against other ways to measure hope. Like, do you feel you control the things that happen to you? Or they just. Is it always circumstances beyond your control? Are you hopeful that you can achieve the things you want to achieve in your future? There’s a whole battery of questions that we use, and then I can talk about how we measure despair, too.

Jonathan DeYoe: Uh, but it’s primary survey results. I mean, I asked because I was wondering how much, like, if I looked at a person and looked at their situation, I might look at their situation and say, that is hopeless. But they may not feel hopeless, they may be hopeful. Right. So I’m wondering how much of it is individual reporting survey results and how much of it is. Here’s the statistics of people who look like they might be hopeless and therefore they’re hopeless.

Carol Graham: It’s a bit of both.

Jonathan DeYoe: Is it? Okay, well, how do you differentiate then? How do you differentiate?

Carol Graham: So it’s a little technical, but it works a lot better when we have surveys on the same people over time. Uh, and we ask these questions in large end surveys, so that, first of all, people don’t really. We’re not asking people whether it’s for life satisfaction or stress or anger or hope. All questions we ask about, we aren’t saying, do these things make you happy or unhappy? Right. We ask them how satisfied they are with their life in general. We ask them if they had stress frequently yesterday. Yes or no? We ask them also, as in the british statistics now, do they have meaning and purpose in life? Which is really cool and part of hope, actually, but they don’t know that then the way we measure their hope is to also take, get, uh, data on their age, their income, their gender, their job status, their marital status, whole range of what we call control variables. So, controlling for the factors that are unique to the individual person, we can isolate just how they’ve answered the question. Independent of that, if we have the same data or, uh, data for the same people over time, what we call panel surveys or longitudinal surveys, then we can do something. It sounds really typical economist tricky. We can control for what we call person fixed effects. So what we’re doing with that is, again, we’re holding the person’s traits constant, meaning that those traits don’t change over time. So we can’t really include age in that, but we can, um, include things that will stay pretty gender, race, in general education levels. After people have finished college or grad school, they’re not going to go on and get more, uh, unlikely, okay, they’ll get more education. The things we can sort of hold constant, and then we can see that people’s responses are not, we can see how people’s individual specific traits are not determining the response. It’s not because of their income or their gender or whatever, because we’ve held that constant and that there’s some robustness across time in how they answer these questions. We also do that actually for countries, we can do it for counties we can do it for, you know, we know there’s cultural differences in the way people answer surveys like the US are much more likely to Americans to be at the very top or the very bottom know, or a bit, uh, extreme as a culture. The Japanese are much more likely to be low key and be in the middle and be understated. And so what we do is we can cluster all responses, say it’s a worldwide comparison. So we cluster the japanese responses, the american responses, so that we can take out whatever response bias is common to japanese people or common to Americans. And then with regions we can do that. And for example, Latin America, I mentioned cheerfulness and hope they always score well above their weight in terms of income, in terms of well being and cheerfulness. So the control variable for Latin Americans is pretty important because it’s capturing a lot know cultural differences that determine the way they respond to these surveys, and they still respond high. So what are you going to do? But that’s probably more than you need to know.

Jonathan DeYoe: It’s just a quick comment. It’s interesting to me to note that the Japanese are sort of middle and the US is kind of know we’re extreme in our survey answers. I look at the japanese culture as a very mindful culture and look at the US culture as not a very mindful culture. And I think that we do go extreme and I catch myself saying internally, this is a thought that I have before I say a like, if I downplay this, I won’t get the attention that I want. If I upplay this, I’ll get the attention that I want. So I have to have to get extreme to get noticed. I think that’s something that I noticed in my own consciousness and looking at my own thoughts. Real quick, the big, obvious question, why does hope matter? When you look at the data and look at all the things and you correct for the variables, what does hope affect in outcomes?

Carol Graham: And that also leads me to despair because of the contrast that we find. But, uh, hope is really linked to better future outcomes for people. So people that have hope for the future end up doing better in life. It’s not rocket science. If you believe you have a future, you’re more likely to invest in it. Particularly, like, if you’re young and you’re making decisions about education or about taking risky drugs, or you also don’t want to jeopardize your future. You’re much more reluctant to jeopardize your future if you care about what you’ll be doing in the future. And so we have a number of studies that show that in different domains, like, they’re also hopeful. People are more healthy. Being hopeful probably won’t cure cancer, but it can help you cope with the treatment required to cure cancer if you’re sort of determined. And hope is different from what? Optimism, which is not a bad trait, but it is kind of the belief things will be better. And that could actually be a survival mechanism for people who live in basically hopeless situations is to just be optimistic. And they do. More optimistic people tend to live longer and probably survive the horrible situation they’re in better. But it isn’t linked to sort of agency. It’s not linked to behavioral. Hope has real behavioral links. And so that’s why in, um, particular, I’ve been focusing a lot on it. I mean, it’s clearly related to life satisfaction. But hope is much more about the future, and life satisfaction is much more about, uh, an evaluation of how your life is. I think for younger people, maybe how they think it will be or if they’re confident that it will be a certain way, but that’s much more nebulous. Right? Versus hope is really a question about the future. And, uh, it requires thinking about the future. And then that, in turn, is linked to behaviors to make that future more likely to happen. Meaning a purpose, for example, is linked to that, because I find that having a purpose in life is anchor for people, right? It makes them retain their hope when things are difficult, right? If you want to achieve that purpose, uh, you’re going to keep at it. And what is happening in the US now, this is why I think hope has become a topic. It’s not become more important than it was before, but it’s become more important in our, uh, public discourse. And that’s why not as many people as I thought would told me I was crazy to be an economist writing a book on hope, because people are realizing that we have widespread despair in the US. And so some of that despair is due to deindustrialization and the decline of the white working class, but also other people who are just in deprivation, without the tools to cope with it. But it really started with the decline of the white working class. And it was not just the disappearance of jobs, but in that american dream kind of construct where you had the stable family. The man was a breadwinner. He worked hard, had respect in his community. Maybe it wasn’t a glamorous job. It could be a mining job, car factory job, but it was a respected job. And the institutions that surrounded the jobs, the union, the family, the nuclear family, were sort of sometimes the church, but they were the mainstays, right? And everything, including actually church going, which I don’t recommend as a cure for anything, but it’s just another sign of our kind of civic organizations really declining. But all those things went with the, uh, particularly in more rural places or suburban places, where really built around one firm and then the other structures kind of came with that, that all fell apart. And including the stable family, with the very high levels of labor force, dropout, unemployment, addiction, opioids, lots of things got thrown into a really perfect storm that led to vicious circles in people’s lives and in their hope for the future, because destroyed it. And so it turns out that because the other puzzle at the time, I thought it was a puzzle in the data, because I hadn’t really learned about deaths of despair yet, that it was really the white working class that had the most highest levels of despair. Suicides, opioid addiction, drug poisoning, and minorities, African Americans and Hispanics were much more hopeful about the future, even though materially they were more deprived. And the Latin America thing didn’t surprise me. I’m from Latin America, but I was struck because I found this for the first time around the time of the, uh, know, the Ferguson riots, the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore. A lot of concern about the african american community. And it was low income African Americans that were the most optimistic. Of all the low income groups I studied, I looked at blacks, Hispanics, and whites because they were the biggest cohorts in my data to have enough observations that I could draw general conclusions. And I, uh, was very puzzled by it at the time. I thought maybe I had a coding error and I’d done the data wrong. But it turns out the more I read about it and learned about it, I realized there were many things that drove it. And one is obviously, resilience developed over time, uh, over time, coping with injustice, with racism, with whatever else, and yet somehow making gradual progress. But the other system that I think is part of the story and certainly is for Latin Americans, too, it’s kind of. Instead of this very individualistic vision, African Americans have much more of a, uh, community vision. It could be Baptist churches, it could be grandmothers, whatever it is that, I think create what I think of as communities of empathy. Because if you context, people fall behind all the time, and they’re dealing with injustice and other stuff, and they may make bad decisions. We all do, right, but a young black kid makes a bad decision and ends up in jail for 20 years. Right. But I think because of that, the idea is to support the people that fall behind the kind of the natural, uh, inclination versus the very individualistic. You work harder, you get ahead culture, there’s no sense of that. I mean, it doesn’t mean people are not good people or whatever, but there is just a very different. There’s less of a social fabric, informal safety nets that you could call them as well, that kind of bully people up at times of difficulty.

Jonathan DeYoe: I know that the original impetus for this conversation was, I read your article, I think it was in the Atlantic, and I started thinking about it, and I think I told you the story that I was those poor whites. When we hear about the quote in the media about the poor whites in South Dakota, that’s how I was raised. We didn’t really have an, uh, income in my household between the ages, between my third and 15th birthday. My dad’s business went under when I was three, and he had od jobs, and we did things to get by, and family supported us. I learned today I was asking my mom, continue to ask questions about where the money came from, what do we did? And my dad refused support. Like, we probably had food stamps and could have had commodities. The government peanut butter, government cheese, those kind of things. We had access to those. And I remember eating it, I remember having it, but I don’t remember where we got it. And it was when people left it at an apartment, that’s the stuff that we got. It wasn’t that we got it from the government. My dad would not get it from the government. The pride wouldn’t allow him to do it anyway. But this whole time, no income. My dad and my mom and dad always said, hey, just what you said. Work hard, get good grades, go to college. I ended up paying for college myself. We had no money for work full time through college. Do this, work really hard, be honest, do the right thing, help people out, uh, and you’ll be successful. I remember, I don’t know if you know Zig Ziglar. He was like an optimism back in the day. The quote I always got was, jonathan, if you help enough other people out, you’ll be successful. Like, you can be successful, but first you have to help other people be. I just, this was drilled into me, and I always think that that’s why my brother and I were successful, was because we were given hope. We weren’t given stuff. We weren’t given. But you can do this. We were told, you can do it. And I think that there’s something huge in that. And that’s what I really was resonating for me in your work is it sounds like that’s part of it.

Carol Graham: Very much a part of it. And it’s interesting. And I remember when you wrote me, uh, that story really struck in my mind. But I think your parents, in doing that, provided mentorship. Right. They wanted you to do better. And one of the things that struck me in the service I did for the book, not the ones in Peru, because all the parents want their kids to do better. And even though the parents are construction workers or carpenters or informal servants or, uh, taxi drivers, they want their kids to go to college. And even more and 85% of our respondents said they were going to college or grad school. This is a neighborhood where half the streets are paved and half are dirt, and half the houses have sewage and tapped electricity, and then the other half have water from trucks and tap into the electric things. Uh, having somebody in your community, your family, that wants to support you matters, I think, a lot. And it certainly seems in your story. And what’s interesting and really depressing in those surveys in chapter four of the book, was that the low income white kids, at least in the school district in Missouri, but it shows up in the larger end data. They were very self reliant, but they didn’t want to go beyond high school. They had no sort of vision for the future. Their parents actively did not want them to go to college. It’s a waste of time, and it’s a little coastal plot. I mean, some of that is newer, sort of going along with some of the ideology. And the low income african american kids, even though they were more materially deprived, had much, much more trust in others, much more of a vision for the future. They were much more hopeful about the future and going to college. And almost every one of them had a mentor. And it wasn’t always a parent. They often not only had one parent in the household, let it be a grandparent, but somebody wanted push. Some of them saying, you can do this, right? Same message. And, uh, it is a powerful. I think it’s a really kind of life changing message, or just having a mentor in your life that helps give you agency. And what scares me about these kids is that they have no sense of what’s going to hit them in the labor markets, what the labor force of the future looks like, and that with, uh, just a public high school education and a dollar, they can buy half a coke. Uh, to the extent. The other thing I’ve found is that the thing about. I think of despair as the analog of hope. So it’s not exactly like there’s a continuum where despair leads to hope. High levels of, uh, despair are terrible for people’s outcome. They don’t care if they live or die. By definition, they have no hope. But there are other elements to it. But I think it’s what despair actually takes people’s agency away. And it isn’t just their income or their employment. It’s their ability to conceive of a different future and to do something about it. Uh, part of it is objective conditions changing that change people’s lives. But a lot of people have had negative shocks and continue to plug on, versus there are large swaths of this country’s population that are now addicted to opioids, dying of overdoses or committing suicide. Like a million deaths in 2010. On a rough estimate, in 2021 alone, we had over 100,000 deaths from opioid overdoses alone. So the number has been increasing over time. And obviously, the cycle of despair and then addiction, I think, has positive. I mean, it’s a, uh, negative effects, but it has, like, externalities. So if you live in a community where everybody’s addicted and dying of suicide and there aren’t really jobs, and everybody who can move away has moved away, kind of hard to be cheery and hopeful, right? Versus actually, the reverse works, which is where if you’re surrounded by a culture that is helpful and supportive. It generally tends to kind of help you do better. Not always. For people in deep depression, that’s actually worse, because if everybody’s hopeful and cheerful.

Jonathan DeYoe: Right.

Carol Graham: Anyway, so there’s kind of a whole kind of community level component to all this.

Jonathan DeYoe: I’m wondering about the struggle of dispersing hope. So if we know hope requires something internal, something from community, maybe something from greater culture, how do we from the outside, manage for hope?

Carol Graham: Yeah, it’s a tough one I’ve been looking at, and I do think we can do something about it. We have to. I don’t think that. We may not have all the recipes yet, but it’s really. And the other thing that’s really interesting is that psychiatrists say that hope is you’ve got to restore hope as a first step towards recovering from mental illness. But they don’t have any tried and true recipes. And for a large part, with the exception of some really forward looking psychiatrists are thinking a lot more about community well being and community despair, and how you can involve a whole community in restoring hope in the community, or, uh, pride in the community. And those things help restore individuals hope. But psychiatrists are still, for the most part, in this kind of individual patient doctor model. It works really well if, a, you have access to mental health, b, you can afford, mean, that’s a huge if in large parts of the US that have high levels of despair. And so there are a whole range of strategies that have worked. Many of them I’ve learned. I’ve, uh, worked very closely with the UK, groups in the UK, the government of the UK, and when they put well being statistics into the government statistics, and then they’ve developed a range of interventions that are designed, know, increase people’s well being and hope their whole leveling up effort, which is a big effort to try and decrease regional disparities. Because the UK, like the US, has deindustrializing places, mainly in the northeast, and, um, know, Oxford, London, that are thriving places, and they’re like two different countries and different levels of service, different levels of life expectancy. But actually the objective of, um, the leveling up effort, little spoken. But it isn’t just income inequality, it’s reducing well being and equality with the idea that people, it matches the hope stuff. Uh, people with low levels of well being have worse outcomes in life. And part of it is because low levels of well being affect your behavior. So there are a number of interventions that I’ve learned about, both from and worked with this organization called what works? Well being, which was in part funded by the government, in part funded by grants, when they introduced wellbeing metrics into their statistics. And they do everything from look at well being in the workforce, to well being in the community, to the role of having access to green spaces, to volunteering is something that shows up a lot, which, when you talked about your parents message, really struck me. People who volunteer are much happier than people that don’t. Now, most of the studies are cross section, so you can’t tease out the direction of causality. Happier people are more likely to volunteer or to be social or all these things, but there’s more to it. So their work, some of the work of some other organizations, a few in the US, the, uh, city of Santa Monica stands out for having the first municipal well being initiative, which was ended due to political reasons, in 2020. God forbid, November 2020. No, November 2019. Even worse, right before the pandemic, we don’t need this stuff. But in any of it, that group is led by Julie Rusk, now runs. It’s called civic wellbeing partners, and they try and increase hope among minorities in the city, because even though you think of Santa Monica as idyllic, there’s a lot of inequality, a lot of racial discrimination, all sorts of things. But in the UK, what they’ve done is brilliant. They have instituted this program in schools in the greater Manchester district, which is a big, quite deprived district, and it’s called be well initiative. And what they do is they start with kids as young as 8th grade, and they teach them things like self esteem and coping. Know how to deal with bullies, how to deal with loneliness, things that you get if you grow up in, uh, a fairly stable, whatever household, but not always, and certainly not in some of these places these kids are from. And then they follow them every three years, and they assess both their reported well being, but also their academic performance and the skill set of what they are taught changes with age, right. They’re age appropriate, and they’ve affected both in a positive way, academic performance and, as you would expect. But the fact that they’ve done it and evaluated it and the program is growing is really cool. And then I’ve been thinking a lot about these kids at, uh, this sort of entering the labor force age, finishing high school and making decisions about college and how uncertain the labor force of the future is. And certainly, if you don’t have high skills, maybe you can get medium skill programming, vocational education, but with high school alone and the kind of socioemotional and cognitive skills that are necessary in tomorrow’s jobs. You really need to think of other kinds of training. We don’t teach these things in high schools. So I think a lot about that age cohort, uh, and then how mentorship can actually be really critical, at least in steering kids in the right directions, because they don’t really know what the labor force, I’m not sure any of us really know.

Jonathan DeYoe: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think about my rotary programs. I’m in Rotary, and we have scholarships, and we have this whole program for coaching and mentoring scholars that are going to college, but we have nothing for kids that don’t go to college. And that’s, what, 50% of the. 40% of the population, that’s a lot of kids.

Carol Graham: It’s a lot. They need to train in, uh, some direction.

Jonathan DeYoe: This is a gigantic question. So, uh, the four pieces that I want to just kind of put out there and just ask if. I wonder if there’s something bigger going on with despair. Like you mentioned, know, Kahneman was won the Nobel first prospect theory, right? This general negativity bias, right? We have millions of years of evolution, whereas a species, we’re rewarded for our increased awareness or hyper awareness of risk. Like, early on here on the savannah, you see the lion, you don’t see the lion. Person that doesn’t see the lion, isn’t aware, doesn’t see the lion dies, right? So that person is no longer in the gene pool. In the last, say, 20 years, our access to information has just skyrocketed. Like our cell phones, social media. Last five to ten years, that information has actually kind of become weaponized. I wonder, and this is the big kind of question, given all it shouldn’t we expect despair? I mean, isn’t that baked in to our hyper awareness, our negativity bias, and then this crazy amount of information that’s now being used against us by Twitter, social media, uh, all this kind of stuff.

Carol Graham: Yeah. And that’s why I think a lot of people talk about the increase in mental health problems of angle young, as though it happened during COVID It didn’t happen during COVID It started in 2011, 2012, the big advent of social media. I mean, even between my kids, the oldest is 29, the twins are 24. It was the younger ones that had access by the time they were 14 or so to Instagram and lots of social media. And before, we didn’t all have cell phones. Right. And I think that’s been really difficult for kids to have confidence. It also creates, like, a tension, uh, everything’s instant. You’re at a party, you take a selfie, and it goes up on the Internet. Versus what about savoring the moment? You know what I mean? It creates a constant flurry that I think is not only negative in general, but it’s also negative for cognitive skills, for things like deeper thinking, attaining, uh, what we call flow in your work, which is just getting fully engaged in that. It’s hard to do that if your email is dinging every minute or your cell phone. And then the other thing is, with this flurry of information, it’s only highlighted our risk, uh, the kind of vulnerability to negativity, because it’s all over the place and teens are kind of brutal. So it’s allowed some really bad outcomes, or it’s developed in some bad outcomes and patterns. And then it turns out the kids who are more introverted and much more likely to spend more time on social media, because that’s a lot easier than actually going places with friends or whatever, that negativity kind of bias is increased, right? Because that’s kind of what they’re seeing in spades. And yet, you couple that with some of the structural trends, labor market trends, what’s becoming increasingly out of reach for so many in our society, so many of the kind of pillars of what we called the land of opportunity whenever it was. And then another thing, and I think Bob Putnam is spot on with this, he wrote this book about a decade ago called our Kids. And he talked about the fact that when he was growing up, quite a while ago in the midwest, everybody went to the public school, everybody went to the same sports matches. They belonged to the same community, whether they were rich or poor. And there were rich kids and there were poor kids. But today, you’ve gotten a privatization in a way, along with the increase in expense of private high schools, not just private colleges, but private high schools. Rich kids are on travel, soccer teams, and poor kids play for the public school. And so that you’ve also eroded, um, on some of the bonds that hold people together. And there’s a wonderful effort in Maine, without going too into detail, because we’re getting short on time, called Portland community squash. Now, you never would have thought of squash as a unifying sport. You think of squash in, like, rich boarding schools in the northeast, but it was founded in Portland, Maine, by just absolutely visionary guy called Barrett Tuskin. And the reason he founded it is Portland is very homogeneous, white, very cold town in Maine. Right? They’ve had influx of sudanese refugees, so they fit in like you can imagine just kind of a weird place to be. But what they’ve done is they get the kids in their program. The kids participate in sports together, but also in things like the arts, whatever. They have a range of activities, they have mentors, they actually have the people that work for them pick up the kids after school and then take them home after the program. Because in Maine, Orlando, uh, Maine, you don’t walk 2 miles somewhere in the dead of winter after school. But then they also raise a lot of money to give them scholarships. So if they complete the program, they get a full scholarship to college. So that’s part of it. That’s the idea that again, by unifying, uh, kids of all backgrounds through sports, which is kind of, it does tend to kind of equal the playing field. But the other thing it’s done is that they host events for the parents. And so these people who would never socialize together, they live in different parts of town, they’re very different colors, they come from very different cultures, but yet they meet each other watching kids sports or at a dinner for the kids team. And it’s actually created a whole, it generates a momentum of itself. So there’s so many things we can learn from, uh, and just quickly, another thing that works very well in deprived communities where you have a lot of out of labor force people who are not going to go back, retired 55 year old auto workers with a lot of pain in their legs, are not going to retrain and become programmers. But what the interventions do, and they’re not very expensive, they provide access to volunteering, so they bring people into the community, or access to the arts, or even walks in green spaces, they just plan them. It doesn’t cost anything, but they get people out of their isolated, desperate shells back into the community. And that’s a first step, and it’s a first step towards restoring meaning and purpose in life, which then again starts to restore hope. You may no longer, as you get older, you’re not as hopeful for your own opportunities, but you are hopeful in different ways, whether it’s for your children, for your country, or your communities. Right? And so there are things we can do. They’re not all written up in nice white papers, know, health policy or income policy yet, but they’re really making mean. Even in the UK and in New Zealand now, they do their budgeting priorities around well being. Well being is actually the priority that societal well being frames. Their budgetary decisions, not GDP, no, their decisions about the environment, all sorts of things. And so this stuff is really starting, know it’s bubbled up and transformed. Now policy making and, um, government operations, not so much in the US, although it’s starting to Covid scared us a bit. Finally, we’ve been talking about doing this. We had a well being panel, National Academy of Sciences panel in 2011, 2012, on which Danny Kahneman was, and other psychologists and economists. But even then, people laughed at us. Right? What is this meano? The Brits went ahead and put it in their statistics and whatever, but granted, our statistical system is also very complicated, and there’s so many surveys, but some of it were even more politicized than.

Jonathan DeYoe: If you could wave a magic wand and just change one thing, add one thing to the system, that would make a difference, what will it be?

Carol Graham: I think getting the metrics into official statistics, it sounds like a boring wish, but honestly, what gets measured is what official. When it’s in official statistics, people start to be aware of. So. And at first, it’s a transition. I remember Gus O’Donnell, who was the mastermind behind the UK effort. He was, I had been chair of cabinet for, in three separate administrations, Blair, Cameron and Brown. So, not small. And he was an econometrician by training, but he was a brilliant politician. Is. And he said at first it was a nightmare trying to introduce it, trying to explain this. Isn’t the government telling you how to be happy? But then people didn’t understand the scales. Like, what does a ten versus a five mean? And blah, blah, blah. But how many people know how we calculate the unemployment rate? Really not many. But the average Joe on the street or Jane knows that a, uh, 1% increase in unemployment is bad and a 0.1% increase in so what? Right? That’s all they need to know. But that took some time to develop, right? So part of it is getting it into people’s language and into understanding it. And then they’re like, oh, wow. And the other thing that seems to work with well being metrics is people want to know how their well being is, how their community’s well being is, what they can do to improve societal well being, or maybe their family’s well being. But it’s something that’s closer to home than saying, okay, we need to reduce income inequality as measured by the genie coefficient. And nobody knows what it is because it’s bad for society. Well, the average person goes, yeah, right. But, uh, if you say to them, do you know that the poor and the rich in the US have a bigger gap in happiness than the poor in Latin America? Which is true, they don’t like that, right? They. Wait a minute, how’s that?

Jonathan DeYoe: How could that, uh, something’s not right. There’s a guy I interviewed, actually, his name is guy. I think he’s in the UK and he’s an economist. I can’t remember his last name off the top of my head, but he was hopeful because he said, you know what? The thing that’s going to save us is the generation coming up, they’ve already changed how labor force works because they’re like, I am not doing this. Grind, grind, grind to. And the, uh, companies have to now change. And well being is becoming something that’s important. And it’s talked about at the company level. I’m in the Bay Area, so, San Francisco Bay area. So the companies are Apple and Google, and they have a firm level lead over everybody else, which is obviously they’re going to add well being and they’re going to talk about it. And that doesn’t really affect somebody that has a small manufacturing company in Kentucky or in South Dakota, right? It doesn’t leak down, but it does eventually, maybe 15 years from now.

Carol Graham: Hey, uh, the other thing really quick is the union movement now in the US is the one that’s like Starbucks and Amazon and all these. It’s driven by young people who want change, right? They don’t want what’s going on. Now. I agree with guy, whoever he is.

Jonathan DeYoe: Guy, uh, what’s his last name? Anyway, so just two final things. And that is just really, I want to get back to the personal side a little bit. You’ve written so much. You’ve been very public about what you’ve done and struggled in a time when this wasn’t really accepted from the economics profession. But personally, is there anything that people don’t know about you or something you’ve said and people don’t remember that you really want them to know?

Carol Graham: Gosh, that’s tough. I guess I, uh, say this a lot to my students. Like, I have people that say they want, they don’t know what they want to do their phd on. And I’m like, well, what do you care about? What are you passionate about? What are you interested in? Well, they’re like, especially if you’re in economics. So I need an instrument or experiment. So the topic doesn’t matter. It’s all about the method, right? And I’m like, you can come up with that somehow. But if you care about what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about it, you’re going to be prolific. You’re going to publish you’re going to succeed because you care about it, not just as a grind. Right. You care about it because you’re actually working on things that matter to you and hopefully others.

Jonathan DeYoe: So are you saying that you’re doing something you love and it’s not a grind?

Carol Graham: Yes. I mean, reviewer number three on journal article number 72 can be a pain.

Jonathan DeYoe: But in general, if you could get the truth about one single question, what would the question be? If you knew the answer you’d get would be the truth.

Carol Graham: Goodness, there’s so many. Because one of the things I’m m really involved in now is trying to understand science, denial, and the opposite of the truth. How we’ve managed to come up with alternative facts in our country, which I find very worrisome. But I think it would be kind of with all the explanations I’ve tried to give you and I tried to give in my book, and that there are so parts of this story about human behavior, about human well being, about hope, right. That really we don’t fully understand because we can’t observe it. There are things we can’t observe about people, and we know there are people who are just naturally more optimistic and happier than others. Some are more hopeful than others, others are more carudgeonly, and we don’t really have the answer to that other than, well, people are different, right? Yeah.

Jonathan DeYoe: Uh, so last thing is, how can people connect with you if they want to say, hey, I want to hear more about your research, or where do they find you?

Carol Graham: They can just email me cgram at brookings.edu.

Jonathan DeYoe: There’s so many more questions. I said this before we started that I had 3 hours of questions, and I have a whole stack of things I want to ask, but we do have to wrap. I just want to say thank you so much for coming on and answering some questions and talking to us. I appreciate it, and our audience appreciates it as well.

Carol Graham: Thank you so much. Really fun to talk. Enjoyed it a lot.

Jonathan DeYoe: Thank you.

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