Not As Miserable As We Look
I’ve mentioned more than once that while I’m content with my own life, I despair for the future. It seems I’m not alone. According to longtime pollster Gallup, whose political surveys receive a B+ grade from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com, as of January 2022, 85% of Americans are satisfied with their own lives, but only 17% are satisfied with the country’s direction, from which I think it fair to infer they’re unhappy with the world’s direction also.
There are at least three reasons to be skeptical about that 85% personal satisfaction rate. First, I suspect people are reluctant to publicly admit they’re unhappy with their lives; it’s a form of self-repudiation more easily acknowledged to oneself and to close connections than to a cold-calling pollster. Second, humans’ great strength is their adaptability; as Abraham Lincoln never said, anyone can learn to stand adversity,* and it’s common for Americans to recast their misfortunes as challenges they’re surmounting. Third, the 85% satisfaction rate doesn’t square with recent data about America’s alarmingly high rate of loneliness and its rise in deaths of despair (those caused by suicide, overdose, and alcohol-related illness).
But even if one in four of those saying they’re satisfied with their lives lied, a solid majority would still be satisfied, and would outnumber by more than three-to-one the meager 17% who think the country is on the right track (I can’t think of a reason to dispute that number.)
Further, when you look at the latest World Happiness Report, which came out last week, the US ranks 16th out of the 146 countries rated. That isn’t as high as ten years ago, when the US ranked 11th, but it’s still in the top ninth among all surveyed countries, way ahead of other large nations such as Brazil (38th), Japan (54th), China (72nd), Indonesia (87th), Nigeria (118th), and India (an abysmal 138th).
So maybe we’re a good deal happier than we think — and than the national and world situations warrant. Is that good or bad?
I think both. Good in that we do have it relatively well here and ought to be more than satisfied — we should be humbled and grateful. The United States is far from perfect, but how many Americans would prefer to live in Brazil or China or Nigeria, much less India? We have a tendency to magnify our problems, aided and abetted by media that routinely sensationalize to boost audience size and politicians who build constituencies through fear, anger, and resentment. But our satisfaction is also bad in that it likely increases complacence in the face of major risks.
I don’t begrudge my fellow Americans their personal happiness. It’s my first priority also. But I lament that we aren’t doing more to repair an imperiled nation and world.
*The maxim ends, “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” I’ve long considered that genuine wisdom, not at all diminished by its more pedestrian lineage.