It is the first day of school . My youngest is starting at the high school. This means that I am slightly nervous for him. Actually, I always am slightly nervous on the first day of school, until I hear from my kids that they had a good day. I am not as nervous as I was on their first day of kindergarten, but it is the same sort of feeling.

I have the house to myself. Obviously, I am going to clean the house before work, since it will not be filled with messy boys all day. I’ll get back to the gym tomorrow, or possibly after I’ve had a day off. If I clean the house very vigorously, I may be able to consider it exercise.

The Wall Street Journal had its approximately-annual report on happiness. Money doesn’t buy it, in case you were wondering. People living on less than $20,000 p.a. are less happy than the rest of us — and it startles me that this figure hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I first read it. Apparently, $20 K is what it takes to live happily in the United States. People making over $90,000 a year consistently report themselves as happier than those making under $20,000, but there are no other significant differences correlating happiness with income. And when those making $90,000 a year were asked not to rate their general level of happiness, but to state how they felt at a given time, they were more likely to report feeling angry or anxious than happy.

It used to be that just over 1/3 of Americans reported themselves as “very  happy,” and now it is just under 1/3. This may merely reflect the growing poverty rate under Mr. Bush, showing the shift of more folks into the “unhappy” under-$20,000 group.

Yet research has pretty consistently agreed that people’s external circumstances affect their happiness only briefly.

I figure that anyone living on minimum wage in the U.S. (this translates to a little less than $10 K p.a., so even two full-time minimum-wage jobs won’t boost you into the happier group) has to deal with little irritations all the time. They can’t afford a car, or if they can, they can’t afford to maintain it. They can’t fix or replace broken appliances, their housing situation is shaky, their neighborhoods are scary, their utilities are always on the verge of being turned off, they face little humiliations and inconveniences all the time. Thus, their bouts of unhappiness in response to circumstances are closer together than those of more affluent people.

The Journal didn’t spend much time speculating on why poor people might be less happy, but they did have an idea about a factor that seems to affect the happiness of richer people. Specifically, commuting. Having a long commute is one of the best predictors for unhappiness. This is because, as they put it, “traffic is a new hell every day.” So, the temporary unhappiness created by circumstances comes up anew each day, as some new inconvenience arises. Kind of like being poor.

#1 son is driving #2 son to school, now that they are at the same school. I’ve made a deal with them to contribute to their gas money as long as they keep excellent grades. We can look at their grades online, so they have agreed to show me their grades every Friday. This keeps them from the horror of riding the bus. I always rode the bus, so I don’t know what the big deal is, and I have never bribed a kid for grades before, but I have agreed to this. They waited until I had not had a day off in two weeks, and had a broken refrigerator and a broken computer. In this weakened state, I agreed to the mad plan in question. It was presented as my helping them to achieve their goal of having excellent grades this year for the sake of their college applications by keeping them from having to take jobs and/or have a long bus ride which would interfere with their study time, not as a bribe.

At this point, I might agree to anything, so I guess I should be thankful that it wasn’t worse.