Why are Americans increasingly unhappy?
Dystopia is a country where everyone is unhappy. With the lowest incomes in the world, the least freedom, the lowest life expectancy, the least social support and the most corruption, they are in fact the worst country in the world.
Dystopia, in this case, does not really exist – except as a reference for other countries of the World Happiness Report, a global collaborative survey that ranks the happiest and most unhappy people on the planet. And the United States is nowhere near as miserable as Dystopia – but it may be getting close: In the first year of publication of the World Happiness Report (2012), the United States ranked 11th. But the most recent report finds the United States down eight levels of happiness, at No. 19.
In addition, the results of the COVID Response Tracking Study, based on data from the General Social Survey, reported in May that Americans were the most unhappy they have ever been – 23% said they were ‘not too happy’ – the most low since the start of the survey in 1972.
In reality, Americans are not particularly sad compared to the rest of the world – in fact, they are objectively among the happiest. After all, the United States ranks 19th out of 149 countries. But be it because the United States is the richest country in the world; or because of that relentless optimism for which Americans are known the world over; or a widely held belief (by Americans) that America is innate different the rest of the world, academics and politicians are wondering why this country is not at the top of the list.
COVID-19 may be responsible for much of the drop. But more than a global pandemic, a mixture of economic, social and cultural circumstances have come together over time to create a particular type of American discontent. And while Americans still enjoy relatively happy lives, there are ways to do better.
The unfortunate effect of COVID-19
The impact of COVID-19 could explain some of the declining trends in happiness America has experienced. Heightened loneliness, uncertainty, and unemployment have compounded America’s problems and other problems. american life Satisfaction fell and continued to fall after April 2020, and “negative affect” (a measure of emotions and self-concept) started to creep. Then the COVID Response Tracking Study found that more Americans than in the past were pessimistic and unhappy about the future.
But COVID-19 cannot explain the trend Americans experienced long before the pandemic hit – according to a number of sources, they have been declining for years.
An economic story
“We are always convinced that we are exceptional. And now it seems to me that we are exceptional in our stupidity more than anything else, ”says Carol Graham. Graham is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, a social science think tank; Graham’s expertise is in measuring American well-being.
“We were the only rich country in the world before COVID where death rates were increasing rather than decreasing,” Graham said. “And that was due to deaths of desperation among fewer middle-aged, college-educated whites.” Suicide, drug overdose, and liver disease caused by alcohol are generally referred to as “deaths of desperation” because they occur more in groups with little hope of improving economic or social conditions.
Graham’s research tells a story of economic upheaval beginning long before the pandemic struck – reinforced by a racist story – which had unexpected results. As well-paying blue-collar jobs for white men in America’s manufacturing industry disappeared and Wal-Mart took hold, unemployment, low education, drug addiction and desperation followed.
Meanwhile, non-white Americans, who have spent centuries fighting discrimination in American workplaces, economies, and society, have built informal networks of support within extended family or religious institutions. They prioritized higher education as a way to improve life. In fact, while Blacks and Hispanics (two major groups for which census data is collected) still face higher Student loan debt, health care disparities and loan rates poverty, they are more optimistic than ever.
But as rural and white communities continued to hold on to the American Dream with fewer and fewer prospects, they saw their own belief system crumble.
“The most believing group, hook and lead line, ‘you work hard to move forward, you don’t want government support, government support for losers,’ suddenly needs support collective, needs all kinds of things and don’t have those natural, informal social connections, ”Graham says. And because America is still predominantly white, American discontent has generally abated.
This is not the first time that sociologists have pointed to the American economy as the root of American unhappiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist at Claremont Graduate University, known for his work on happiness and creativity, wrote in 1999 on capitalist measures of our own success,
“Today, the logic of reducing everything to quantifiable measures has made the dollar the common measure by which to assess every aspect of human action,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi. Because our self-esteem in America depends on our worth in a market, he argues, we expect and depend on material rewards to make us happy. And they don’t.
Study after a study showed that monetary gain does not bring emotional well-being. Higher income may temporarily increase happiness, but people adapt quickly by increasing their personal benchmarks.
The economy, however, may not tell the whole story of American discontent. Linked to the classic tale of hard work, material gain and, more recently, the workaholic, is a dependence on the individual, not the group. In study across the United States, Russia, Germany, and East Asia, researchers found that people in cultures that value collectivism over individualism tended to be more successful in pursuing happiness. because of the emphasis on social engagement.
“The richest countries are not the happiest, the healthiest countries are not always the happiest. The happiest countries are those with the highest standards in a whole range of things, ”says John Helliwell, editor of the World Happiness Report and professor emeritus at the Vancouver School of Economics. “They include, in particular, a willingness to trust each other to work for each other and to come together in difficult times.”
Helliwell describes speaking to leaders in Denmark, the second happiest country according to the World Happiness Report, about their places of work, which he described as more collaborative and community-based. “They share the same dining room, they share the same conversations about what to do to make a better product, knowing what’s going on in each other’s families,” Helliwell says. The pay was also, crucially, more equal. That is, the pay gap between the highest paid and lowest paid workers in a company was relatively small. “These flat structures are more pleasant places to work. And they are often more effective.
The United States, on the other hand, is one of the most unequal rich countries, and the most unequal among G7 countries, according to the Pew Research Center. Inequality, which the World Happiness Report uses as one of the The Strongest social confidence measures, plays a big role in happiness. Access to health care and education is also uneven, Helliwell adds. “Despite a lot of people’s efforts, it’s probably less even than it was 50 years ago. And that has consequences. “
Social comparison in America
Inequality may not affect people in a vacuum. After all, if we didn’t know how well off Jeff Bezos – or even our neighbor – was, we might not care. But the feeling of relative scarcity, which one has less compared to others, is powerful. And we don’t just limit ourselves to our neighborhood or our commute to absorb what others have – social media, with its roots in America, allows us to be bombarded with it at any time of the day.
“This idea of wanting to have a better car, or a better backdrop for your vacation photo or wedding is probably more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere,” Helliwell adds. And a growing body of research supports this phenomenon. A study found that greater use of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter resulted in less well-being, while the reverse was true for actual face-to-face social interaction.
There is also much less bullying and arguing. “Once people have the opportunity to meet, sit and talk together,” says Helliwell, “they’re much less likely to consider the option of saying negative things about each other or ‘act in a negative way. Social networks have an intrinsic distance.
And, Helliwell points out, the mass media has a way of overreporting bad and exaggerated perceptions of danger and mistrust. But all is not gloomy. Helliwell says that based on the findings of the World Happiness Report, COVID-19, surprisingly, has allowed people around the world to see more examples of people helping each other.
“People are now fully aware that there are people who need help. And what’s more, they’re doing something about it, ”Helliwell says. “People who don’t go to Brazil to the top of a mountain on vacation, but walk their block and meet their neighbors, have ended up being happier.”