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Sick and Tired

Jonathan Clements, 12:58 am ET

BETWEEN 1972 AND 2018, the percentage of Americans who described themselves as very happy ranged from 29% to 38%. The number for 2021 was recently released: Just 19% of us said we’re very happy—10 percentage points lower than any prior survey.

Our happiness, it seems, is another victim of the pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 and the resulting social isolation has delivered a bigger blow to our collective happiness than 2008-09’s Great Recession, 2001’s terrorist attacks and countless other distressing events from the past half-century.

These results come from the General Social Survey (GSS), which is the go-to source for data on American happiness. The survey is often used to highlight the negligible impact of rising standards of living on our happiness. For instance, in 2018, 31% of Americans described themselves as very happy, barely different from the 30% who gave that response in 1972, the first year that the survey was conducted. Over the intervening 46 years, U.S. inflation-adjusted per-capita disposable income climbed 131%.

More money, it seems, hasn’t bought happiness. One reason: We care less about our absolute standard of living, and more about how our financial lot in life compares to that of others. That suggests that the past few years, with a rocky economy that’s affected most of us, wouldn’t necessarily send us into a funk—and, indeed, if the recent decline in reported happiness was solely about money, you’d have expected all those stimulus checks and other federal government goodies to have softened the blow.

The GSS slices its data by age, education, political affiliation and so on. No matter which group you look at, happiness was down in 2021 compared to 2018, though the size of the decline often varied. For instance, while the percentage of men saying they’re very happy dropped from 31% to 21% over the past three years, the decline among women was notably larger, from 31% in 2018 to 18% in 2021. One possible explanation: With children forced to learn remotely, mom ended up shouldering a large part of the resulting burden.

Another intriguing insight: Republicans saw a far smaller drop in happiness than Democrats and independents. The GSS’s 2021 survey also found a 15-percentage-point drop over the past three years in those describing life as exciting, a five-point drop in Americans’ satisfaction with their financial situation and a 13-point decline in those who agree that their standard of living has a good chance of improving. Will 2022 bring a big rebound in our reported happiness? Rising inflation, and tumbling stock and bond prices, won’t help. But in terms of happiness, the crucial issue, I suspect, is how quickly daily life returns to something that looks like normal.

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Feisal Brahim
Feisal Brahim
2 months ago

I was intrigued by this article on happiness. I define happiness as a mental process that could be influenced by satisfaction and comfort, both of which are determined by finance and the ability to acquire material goods. I am in my 80s so I have seen much in my lifetime. I also recently read an article which states that children in poor countries appear to be more happy than those in developed countries. I came from a third world country, and as I reminisce on my youth, I certainly was more happy than my grandchildren here in the USA, since they have more to deal with, given the societal changes occurring today.

Feisal Brahim

Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
2 months ago

It is true that we often measure our progress by comparing ourselves with our peers. So how do we define happiness? I’ve read articles and books which rate various countries on this measure. I wonder how carefully and deeply people consider these questions before responding. While I accept the authors’ summaries of the answers received, I am skeptical the answers are an accurate measure of the respondents actual happiness. I agree with Mark Royer. I suspect that if someone glanced at what he wrote in his brief comment below before responding to a happiness survey, we’d see a different result. A lengthy book, definitely worth the time to read which deals with this topic among many others is “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker.

Philip Stein
Philip Stein
2 months ago

“We care less about our absolute standard of living, and more about how our financial lot in life compares to that of others.” This statement jumped out at me.

So many books, articles, and blogs admonish us to define our goals and allocate our assets to give us the greatest chance of meeting those goals. Yet, it still appears that happiness for some hinges on how well others are doing, even if their goals are much different than ours. No wonder envy is one of the seven deadly sins.

If a future recession causes a greater decline in the net worth of those we compare ourselves to, I have to wonder if Schadenfreude will make us happier.

Mark Royer
Mark Royer
2 months ago

Interesting study. I would consider myself happy overall. Not in how the market is doing or how the federal government is running the country, but in my life with my wife, our three adult daughters, sons-in-law and three granddaughters. We watch our 16 month old twin granddaughters two or three times a week and we delight in helping provide them with a happy, loving environment. We do volunteer work and help in our church and enjoy that too. Life is too short to focus on being miserable and trying to make others miserable.

Cammer Michael
Cammer Michael
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Royer

The world is a serious mess right now, and I think things are getting worse, but me personally, not to gloat, I don’t see this with the people closest to me. The first year of the pandemic was stressful, but I think most people in my family are happier now than 2019. Me personally, during the pandemic I got a better perspective on work/life balance, spent more time with my family, and got to know my neighbors better. The structure of the shutdown, intensive Zoom for two months, including new international contacts, and then gradually returning returning to the lab full time by the fall, followed by the most intensive year of work since before 2000 contrasted with just about everybody else not back at in-person work, clarified what was important and what could be dispensed with at work. Perhaps this is part of it, comparing with others.  

Philip Morgan
Philip Morgan
1 month ago
Reply to  Cammer Michael

I think you have the right of it – you can’t base your happiness on perceived global conditions, because it’s always a serious mess. You have to act and react locally and see to you and yours.

One of my college-age kids said the world is going to end soon due to global warming, etc. and she was only half joking. I told her the exact same things were being said in the 1970s, but it was nuclear war, acid rain, the hole in the ozone, etc. All insurmountable problems of the time that doomed us to destruction – and ended up not destroying us. You have to keep your eyes a little closer to home and try to help those around you, and happiness will follow.

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