Poorer But Happier

February 27, 2014  
Filed under Sustainable Living


The National Opinion Research Council tries to quantify how happy Americans are with a yearly poll. Since 1950, the number of Americans responding that they were “very happy” has steadily declined. Between 1970 and 1994, it dropped five full points, indicating that less than a third of Americans were “very happy.” In 2006, our happiness level was at a new low in spite of a healthy economy and record amounts of consumption per capita.

1991 was a time plenty for average Americans. We owned twice as many cars, drove twice as far, used twenty-one times more plastic and traveled 25 times farther by air than did the average family in 1951, according to environmentalist Alan Durning. Our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person has tripled since the 1950s. So did the square footage of the average house and the circumference around our waists. However, homelessness increased, alcoholism and drug abuse statistics rose and divorce rates doubled.

Surveys have found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich individuals on the Forbes 400 and the impoverished Maasai herdsman of East Africa. In contrast, Bhutan, a small Himalayan country, recently decided to stop measuring GDP, and replaced it with a “happiness index.” Citizens of Bhutan are no longer measured by how productive they are at work, instead, they are measured by how happy they are in life.

“There is no necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level of well-being,” said Thakur S. Powdyel, a Bhutanese official to the New York Times. As a result, household incomes in Bhutan are among the poorest in the world, but life expectancy has increased by 19 years, and government funding is spent on education, health care and the environment.

In the U.S., with a recession raging, we can still communicate with people all over the world instantly, eat fresh foods from the other side of the planet and watch over 100 channels of TV anytime of the day or night. We have mountains of stuff crammed into mountain-sized houses, which hold smaller families who report they are still “not happy.” Clearly it is not money or the stuff that makes us happy. So what does?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied dozens of human activities to see what made Americans happy. He found that volunteer work of all kinds generated “high levels of joy, exceeded only by dancing.” Why volunteer work? The most common answer is that “you make new friends” and “it gets me out of myself.” For others it was “doing something meaningful” and “building a sense of community.” In human society, relationships trumps money.

In his book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community,” Robert Putnam notes that as our incomes have climbed, our civic participation has dramatically decreased. This decrease takes the form of lower attendance in churches, civic groups and volunteer organizations, as well as reduced involvement in local government.

Putnam notes, “Each generation … since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than their immediate predecessor.” People born before 1945 and after 1964 both see family, friends and co-workers as providing a sense of belonging. However, these two generations disagree that neighbors, churches, local communities and organizations prove a sense of community. The fabric of communities is woven by volunteers, and recently, it has begun to unravel.



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