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
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 http://www.nber.org/papers/w14969 .
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.
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:
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