Happiness: Not So Happy in the USA

In this entry:

  1. Decreasing Happiness is a Long Term Trend
  2. The World Happiness Report
  3. Is Well Being a More Apt Term Than Happiness?
  4. The Impact of Income on Happiness
  5. The Impact of Achievement / Tragedy on Happiness

Before we begin, a quick quiz:

1. On average, rank who you believe would be the happiest (1, 2, 3): Someone who makes: $5,000; $50,000; or $50 million per year in the US? (Question from Happy documentary)

2. Who is happier on average – A Super Bowl champion six months after the Super Bowl, or a person who ends up completely paralyzed six months after their accident? (Question from “A Very Short Introduction to Happiness”)

[The answers will be discussed in the next few paragraphs.]

The last couple of months have been difficult. The rise of Covid-19 has led to fear, anxiety, anger, and depression. Many people have lost their businesses, their jobs, their loved ones, been quarantined, and are experiencing financial and food insecurity. In many states, including Pennsylvania, stay at home orders were put in place, and going to the store seemed like something out of a zombie movie. This experience can be frightening for anyone.

Recently, there were many news articles exclaiming that the US is less happy than in a long time or even ever before. However, these articles often leave out a larger context – this trend is not new. For example, this article from 2007 reports that Americans are less happy than they have been in over 30 years. It would be easy to find articles from the 1990s and 1980s noting this trend as well. This trend did not start with Covid 19. Most studies show that the trend began in the decades after World War II. So, why are Americans less happy? Why do many studies show that this downward trend started in the decades after World War II as the economy started to accelerate? What is causing this trend? These are questions that I will address in this series of blog entries.

2. The World Happiness Report: The World Happiness Report “ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be”. It has also continued to show a downward trend:

While it is easy to point to The Great Recession and Covid 19 as reasons for declining levels of happiness and life satisfaction, it is more difficult to explain why these factors continue to decline in times of relative prosperity (low unemployment, low violent crime rates, increasing GDP, etc.). Researchers call this the Eastern Paradox – “As standard of life improves, so should happiness, but it does not”. Perhaps, this means that we should reevaluate what traditionally has been viewed as keys to happiness in American society. The World Happiness Report discusses factors such as “declining social support”, “increasing addiction rates”, and “differences in leisure time activities” as possible reasons for this decline. However, other studies show consumerism, debt, and mental health to be primary factors as well. While it is easy to find these correlations, perhaps there is a larger cultural shift at work. This is something that we will explore in these entries.

3. Is Well Being a More Apt Term Than Happiness? Because the meaning of happiness often varies from culture to culture, some experts measure life satisfaction or well-being in place of happiness. In this regard, Americans tend to rate their well-being at approximately 5 out of 10. The Nordic countries, Australia, Canada, some countries in South America, and some European countries all regularly report higher well-being and higher levels of happiness. In both life satisfaction and well being studies, the US is also experiencing a downward trend as well.

In order to understand factors that have led to the downward trend in happiness and life satisfaction described above, it is important to understand some misconceptions that Americans have on the subject. So, let’s return to those questions from the beginning of the post. Americans tend to correlate two main ideas with happiness more than any other country: income and achievement.

4. The Impact of Income on Happiness: Question One: On average, rank who you believe would be the happiest (1, 2, 3): Someone who makes: $5,000 or $50,000 or $50 million per year in the US? Answer: It was a trick question; the least happy of the three people is what most people would suspect – the person making $5,000 a year. They would not be able to pay for shelter or most of their basic needs. This would greatly impact their happiness in the United States (Happy documentary). It is important to note that this is not universal. There are many countries where there is almost no correlation between income and happiness. This will be discussed in a future entry on the impact of culture on happiness.

What most people would not suspect is that the happiest person, on average, would be a tie between the person making $50,000 a year and the person making $50 million per year. On average, once basic needs are met, the difference in happiness is little to none (Happy documentary). Studies have consistently shown that the average person making these two salaries have similar ranges of happiness. Of course, some added information could change the scenario; for instance, if the person making $50,000 had a large amount of debt or lived in an area with a high cost of living. But, in general, once basic needs are met, there is a negligible difference in happiness.

Why do you think most people might think that the person making $50 million would be happier? What assumptions lead to this conclusion? The most obvious assumption is that money leads to happiness. Research clearly shows that this is not the case. So, why do so many of us continue to think this is true? This is a question that will be examined in a future post. We will also examine why many other cultures would view this idea of happiness and income differently.

5. The Impact of Achievement on Happiness: Question Two: Who is happier on average – A Super Bowl champion six months after the Super Bowl, or a person who ends up completely paralyzed six months after their accident? Answer: They are nearly identical; though, on average, there is a slight edge in happiness for the person who had been paralyzed (from “A Very Short Introduction to Happiness”). How does this defy expectations? What does it illustrate about what Americans value? The easy conclusion is that achievement has almost no correlation with happiness.

Most Americans believe that achievements will lead to happiness. We are brought up to believe ideas like: if I graduate from high school / college, I will be happy; if I get a certain job, I will be happy; If I get married / have kids, then I will be happy. Research shows that this is not the case. Achievement leads to a small increase in happiness; however, it does not last. On average, this increase lasts about six months, then we return to our base level of happiness.

So, why is the average Super Bowl champion slightly less happy than the person who was paralyzed six months later? The research is less clear on this topic. However, the researchers who have studied this argue that since the Super Bowl champion has already reached the pinnacle of their success, it creates a lot more pressure on them to do it again. They often get depressed as they realize they may never accomplish anything that important again. (From “A Very Short Introduction to Happiness”)

This clip from the movie Happy shows a woman who was in an accident and how it reshaped her life. While she was not paralyzed, the idea is similar to that discussed in A Very Short Introduction to Happiness. The documentary Pursuing Happiness also shows this with cancer, death, and a man who lost his arms.

The person who has been paralyzed has a completely different experience on average. They have experienced extreme loss. They have lost the function of their body, but often also lose their job, hobbies, and many other things they love as well. Because of experiencing this loss, and being forced to rely on others, it creates a different focus; a renewed focus on what really matters in life (from “A Very Short Introduction to Happiness” and Happy documentary). Of course, each experience is unique, but normally, this is the case.

What can we learn from the example of the Super Bowl champion versus the person who experiences loss? At the very least, it can make us question our priorities, values, and culture. And, if we start to question and challenge these ideas, perhaps, eventually, we will be able to stop the downward trajectory of happiness in the United States. Even if we don’t change the this trajectory as a culture, maybe we can change the trajectory of our individual lives.


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s