Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Pursuit of

Social comparisons based on personal recollections are always suspect. If we go through a personal rough patch in some period of our lives, our memories of that whole era are likely to be soured permanently. More commonly, though, we remember our youthful days as sunny. “It used to be so much better,” is a refrain of the middle-aged and older. Well, it was – for them. All else equal (which it seldom is) of course 22 is better than 52, 62 or 72. But there is one memory of my own that I’m pretty sure is accurate. Decades ago, people used to smile more – in the US anyway. A lot more. Happiness surveys lend some support to this, showing Americans have grown steadily more morose since the 1970s, with women (who used to score as happier than men) showing the greatest disgruntlement: see .

Happiness surveys need to be treated with some caution, since researchers are all-too-humanly likely (but unhelpfully) to structure their questions in terms of their own political prejudices, for example by including in the very definition of happiness something like economic freedom or, alternatively, access to social services; it is no surprise, then, when they find people who live in their preferred political system to be happy. Also, there is a difference between cheerfulness and contentedness, both of which are aspects of happiness; the former is more outwardly directed while the latter is internal. Denmark, for example, by most measures is a pretty contentedly happy place, but, while Danes are nice enough folks, “cheery” and “ebullient” are not really the first adjectives that come to mind when strolling in Copenhagen. Smiles, joviality, and bonhomie have more to do with cheer than contentment, and one often encounters more of cheer in much less affluent places.

If you simply ask people if they’re happy, the subjective responses you get are closer to the way things appear to casual observers. A poll last year which asked this of 150,000 people (a huge sample) around the world showed 7 of 10 happiest countries to be in Latin America: Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, and the Philippines rounded out the top 10. Wealthy, comfortable, pleasant, and well-managed Singapore (ranking 32 places above Panama on the Human Development Index) on the other hand was at the bottom of the happiness list, showing that money and good government had little to do with it. The US was pretty far down the list, too, at 33.

Why the differences between countries and between eras? I suppose we are left only with the explanation “it’s a cultural thing” which is really just a tautology and so no explanation at all. Well then, why have Americans as a “cultural thing” become less cheery, at least superficially, over the past four decades? I don’t know. Once again, political partisans will be tempted to partisan answers, but the international poll results, which show little correspondence to prevailing ideologies or economic factors, make these hard to justify. Cheeriness on these shores is simply less fashionable than it once was, and it always is hard to explain fashion. Vexation and cynicism are more in vogue.

One needn’t obsequiously follow fashion in this matter any more than in others, however. How to face the world and the grumpiness all around is an individual choice. We always can choose to show off our dental work if we wish – and I don’t mean in a grimace – even if we’re not really feeling it, and we can do so without giving up the pursuit of our goals. Besides, cheer is curiously contagious, so you might even get a smile back.

Mighty Aphrodite ending


  1. Yeah, I certainly wouldn't know the reasons for happiness. I seem content myself, though as you say that's variable on a day to day basis, week to week, etc. Happiness is fleeting. Events change us too as we get older. Family members (and friends) die as we get older and leave our happiness fragmented. Also too, it could be say, if once our country had a high bar set for happiness (back in the '50's), and it seems that bar has been lower (granted it can be relative to the individual) maybe that's part of the malaise?

    I saw a recent documentary called Inequality for All, which although didn't address happiness per se I think it does indirectly, it's more about the economy. Perhaps those issues have effected America's outlook/happiness, and to tell you the truth, it doesn't seem our future gets any rosier. I don't blame either party per se, I think they both are at fault. Sadly, I don't have a quick solution either. I guess our world has just gotten increasingly complex. I wish, however, that our government would look at some of these other countries and see what makes them work, and work towards that goal, but when you get gridlock, well, easier said than done. What a boondoggle.

    1. Loss is definitely a part of growing older, as you say. We do face a lot of unpleasant realities in the world, both personally and socially. The politics of our time are indeed ghastly. Yet, during my HS and college years they were, too: war, mass demonstrations, riots, “police riots”, assassinations, and even a few small but violent insurrectionary groups. For all that, in everyday life folks were cheerier. To the extent politics depresses us more now (if it does), perhaps it has something to do with the extent to which it is in our faces every waking hour, not only on the news but in social media. My facebook feed, for example, has no shortage of posts (from various types of ideologues) from people expressing angry offense at something said by someone on the other side, who then in turn takes angry offense at the angry offense. Jon Lovett in “The Atlantic” wrote an article about this not long ago which is worth a read: . Or, once again, rueful vexation may be just a matter of fashion. Friendly enmity is out. But maybe one day Wordsworth’s “Happy Warrior” will be back in fashion again – or we’ll put the war aside more often.