Happiness, and not

Last year I was at work when a woman walked into the office and wanted to talk to me about the Gross National Happiness project.

At the time, I wrote that it looked to me like an effort to make that which is subjective and personal objective and societal. It was certainly communitarian as well, something I don’t buy in a country founded on individual freedom.

Dennis Prager tackles the subject:

Here are some unhappy statistics:

— In America between 1946 and 2006, the suicide rate quadrupled for males ages 15 to 24 and doubled for females the same age.

— In 1950, the suicide rate per 100,000 Americans was 11.4. In 2017, it was 14.

— According to Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, in the 1980s, there were 32 mass public shootings (which he defines as incidents in which four or more people are killed publicly with guns within 24 hours). In the 1990s, there were 42. In the first decade of this century, there were 28. In all the 1950s, when there were fewer controls on guns, there was one. Fifty years before that, in the 1900s, there were none.

— Reuters Health reported in 2019, “Suicidal thinking, severe depression and rates of self-injury among U.S. college students more than doubled over less than a decade, a nationwide study suggests.” The study co-author Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, said, “It suggests that something is seriously wrong in the lives of young people.”

This data is not only applicable to Americans. As social commentator Kay Hymowitz wrote in City Journal in 2019: “Loneliness, public-health experts tell us, is killing as many people as obesity and smoking. … Germans are lonely, the bon vivant French are lonely, and even the Scandinavians — the happiest people in the world, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report — are lonely, too. British prime minister Theresa May recently appointed a ‘Minister of Loneliness.’ … consider Japan, a country now in the throes of an epidemic of kodokushi, roughly translated as ‘lonely deaths.’ Local Japanese papers regularly publish stories about kinless elderly whose deaths go unnoticed until the telltale smell of maggot-eaten flesh alerts neighbors.”

Though people have more money, better health care, better health, better housing and more education, and live longer than at any time in history, they — especially young people — are unhappier than at any time since data collection began.

Why has this happened?

There are any number of reasons. Increased use of illicit drugs and prescription drug abuse, and less human interaction because of constant cellphone use are two widely offered, valid explanations. Less valid explanations include competition, grades anxiety, capitalism and income inequality. And then there are young people’s fears that because of global warming, they have a bleak, and perhaps no, future.

But the biggest reason may be the almost-complete loss of values and meaning over the last half-century.

Let’s begin with values.

America — and much of the rest of the West, but I will confine my discussion to America — was founded on two sets of values: Judeo-Christian and American. This combination created the freest, most opportunity-giving, most affluent country in world history. This is not chauvinism. It is fact. And it was regarded as such throughout the world. That is why France gave America — and only America — the Statue of Liberty. That’s why people from every country on Earth so wanted to immigrate to America — and still do.

Chief among American values was keeping government as small as possible. This enabled nongovernmental institutions — Kiwanis International, Rotary International and Lions Clubs International; book clubs; the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; bowling leagues; music societies; and, of course, churches — to provide Americans with friends and to provide the neediest Americans with help. But as government has gotten ever larger, many of these nongovernmental groups have dwindled in number or simply disappeared.

Another set of values is what is referred to as “middle-class” or “bourgeois” values. These include getting married before one has a child; making a family; getting a job so as to be self-sustaining and sustain one’s family; self-discipline; delayed gratification; and patriotism.

All of these have been under attack by America’s elites, with the following results:

One in 5 young Americans has no contact with his or her father (not including fathers who have died).

In 2011, 72% of black children were born to unmarried mothers. In 1965, it was 24%. In 2012, 29% of white children were born to unmarried women. In 1965, it was 3.1%.

The majority of births to millennials are to unmarried women. Yet, according to a 2018 Cigna study, single parents are generally the loneliest Americans.

Marriage and family are the single greatest sources of happiness for most people. Yet, the percentage of American adults who have never been married is at a historic high. More Americans than ever will not get married, or they will marry so late they will not have children. In 1960, 9% of blacks ages 25 and older had never been married. In 2012, it was nearly 40%.

And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest problem: the loss of meaning in young people’s lives.

Which Prager intends to address in his next writing.

All of what Prager asserts is despite, or maybe because of, what Marian L. Tupy writes:

Judging by a 2016 poll of close to 20,000 people in some of the world’s richest countries, you could barely overstate the extent of the gloominess.  In response to the question “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?”,  just 10 per cent in Sweden, 6 per cent in the US, 4 per cent in Germany and 3 per cent in France thought things were getting better. Why? Because, it turns out, we are pessimists by nature.

Over the last 200 years or so, the world has experienced previously unimaginable improvements in standards of living. The process of rapid economic growth started in Europe and America, but today some of the world’s fastest growing countries can be found in Asia and Africa – lifting billions of people from absolute poverty. Historical evidence, therefore, makes a potent case for optimism. Yet, pessimism is everywhere. As the British author Matt Ridley noted in The Rational Optimist:

The bookshops are groaning under ziggurats of pessimism. The airwaves are crammed with doom. In my own adult lifetime, I have listened to the implacable predictions of growing poverty, coming famines, expanding deserts, imminent plagues, impending water wars, inevitable oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, mad-cow epidemics, Y2K computer bugs, killer bees, sex-change fish, global warming, ocean acidification and even asteroid impacts that would presently bring this happy interlude to a terrible end. I cannot recall a time when one or other of these scares was not solemnly espoused by sober, distinguished and serious elites and hysterically echoed by the media. I cannot recall a time when I was not being urged by somebody that the world could only survive if it abandoned the foolish goal of economic growth. The fashionable reason for pessimism changed, but the pessimism was constant. In the 1960s the population explosion and global famine were top of the charts, in the 1970s the exhaustion of resources, in the 1980s acid rain, in the 1990s pandemics, in the 2000s global warming. One by one these scares came and (all but the last) went.

Ridley raises a more specific point that general pessimism: Why are we as a species so willing to believe in doomsday scenarios that virtually never materialise?

The Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Peter H. Diamandis, offers one plausible explanation. Human beings are constantly bombarded with information. Because our brains have a limited computing power, they have to separate what is important, such as a lion running toward us, from what is mundane, such as a bed of flowers. Because survival is more important than all other considerations, most information enters our brains through the amygdala – a part of the brain that is “responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear.” Information relating to those primal emotions gets our attention first because the amygdala “is always looking for something to fear.” Our species, in other words, has evolved to prioritise bad news.

The Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker has noted that the nature of cognition and nature of news interact in ways that make us think that the world is worse than it really is. News, after all, is about things that happen. Things that did not happen go unreported. As Pinker points out, we “never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.’” Newspapers and other media, in other words, tend to focus on the negative. As the old journalistic addage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

To make matters worse, the arrival of social media makes bad news immediate and more intimate. Until relatively recently, most people knew very little about the countless wars, plagues, famines and natural catastrophes happening in distant parts of the world. Contrast that with the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster, which people throughout the world watched unfold in real time on their smart phones.

The human brain also tends to overestimate danger due to what psychologists call “the availability heuristic” or a process of estimating the probability of an event based on the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. Unfortunately, human memory recalls events for reasons other than their rate of recurrence. When an event turns up because it is traumatic, the human brain will overestimate how likely it is to reoccur.

Consider our fear of terror. According to John Mueller, a political scientist from the Ohio State University, “In the years since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have managed to kill about seven people a year within the United States. All those deaths are tragic of course, but some comparisons are warranted: lightning kills about 46 people a year, accident-causing deer another 150, and drownings in bathtubs around 300.” Yet, Americans continue to fear terror much more than drowning in a bathtub.

Moreover, as Pinker also points out, the psychological effects of bad things tend to outweigh those of the good ones. Ask yourself, how much happier can you imagine yourself feeling? And again, how much more miserable can you imagine yourself to feel? The answer to the latter question is: infinitely. Psychological literature shows that people fear losses more than they look forward to gains; dwell on setbacks more than relishing successes; resent criticism more than being encouraged by praise. Bad, in other words, is stronger than good.

Finally, good and bad things tend to happen on different timelines. Bad things, such as plane crashes, can happen quickly. Good things, such as the strides humanity has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, tend to happen incrementally and over a long period of time. As Kevin Kelly from Wired has put it, “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of Science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades in to what we might call civilisation … [Progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect.”

In other words, humanity suffers from a negativity bias or “vigilance for bad things around us.” Consequently, there is a market for purveyors of bad news, be they doomsayers who claim that overpopulation will cause mass starvation, or scaremongers who claim that we are running out of natural resources.

Politicians, too, have realised that banging on about “crises” increases their power and can get them re-elected. It may also lead to prestigious prizes and lucrative speaking engagements. Thus politicians on both Left and Right play on our fears – whether it is a worry that crime is caused by playing violent computer games or that health maladies supposedly caused by the consumption of genetically modified foods.

The negativity bias is deeply ingrained in our brains. It cannot be wished away. The best that we can do is to realise that we are suffering from it.

One reason I am somewhat skeptical about these two points of view is the reality of American life when our ancestors arrived from other countries. Unless your family became Americans after World War II, your ancestors’ lives were a daily struggle for survival. Those of you reading this are descended from people who survived infections before antibiotics, fatal illnesses without hope of treatment, commonplace workplace accidents, commonplace accidents of other sorts, unsafe-by-today’s-standards vehicles and roads, and two world wars. They were also people who, at least before the next generation was born, didn’t answer unfortunate events or despair with suicide.

(Personal example: My mother got very seriously ill with pneumonia as a child during the very early days of antibiotics. Also before I was born, my father almost died in a car crash when the car he was in was hit by a drunk driver. I have an older brother who died at 23 months old of a brain tumor, something that wasn’t found until after his death. Our existence is more tenuous than you might think.)

I highly doubt anyone trying to survive in a strange land spent much time pondering whether or not they were happy. That is a curse of sorts of prosperity, given that today we don’t have to hunt for or gather that day’s food, among other improvements of today.

This could be called “affluenza,” or “First World problems” — the idea that the world is supposed to make us happy. The Founding Fathers specified in the Declaration of Independence our “inalienable rights” including the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which, again, is obviously an individual, not collective, thing.

Whether or not there is a political cause, it seems logical that the fading of religion in our culture is tied to an increase in societal malaise. Among other things, religion teaches gratitude for what we have (except for those who preach the irreligious “prosperity Gospel”) and thinking of and serving others.

Religion has been replaced in some areas by politics, which is a guarantee of unhappiness, because (1) there are winners and losers, and everyone will lose at some point, (2) no one ever has as much power as they want, and (3) no one can accomplish as much as they want.

I’m not sure whose fault it is (probably parents and schools at minimum), but ultimately whether we are happy or not is our own responsibility and no one else’s. Consider how many big lottery winners turn out to have unhappy lives after they win. The fact that all of their money troubles are answered (until the money runs out) doesn’t mean that all their troubles are answered. In contrast, think about people you know who either have very little in terms of wealth or material possessions, or have horrible personal tragedies, and yet press on with their lives.


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