How Happy Is America?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I felt like I made it through the pandemic year — which is now turning into the pandemic year-and-a-half — in good emotional shape. I worked hard, I Zoomed with friends and hung out in person when possible, I kept in touch with people, I made plans for the future. And yet these days I find myself realizing how emotionally exhausted I really am. The stress of the dire events afflicting the world combined with physical isolation to exact a subtle but unavoidable toll.
And my experience with increased solitude was pretty much the norm:
There’s just something about prolonged physical isolation that doesn’t sit well with human beings, despite all the wonderful digital tools we’ve invented to keep in touch.
The pandemic also took away opportunities for many of the things that Americans do to de-stress, relax and take care of themselves. Census time-use surveys found fewer hours spent on things like travel, shopping and even personal grooming:
Covid, however, wasn’t the only stressor weighing on Americans’ minds. Summer 2020 saw the largest protests in American history, along with widespread looting and other forms of social unrest. The November election, and Donald Trump’s attempt to deny the result, culminating in the Capitol attack on 1/6, made it feel like the country was coming apart. A study by economists David Blanchflower and Alex Bryson found that politics and the pandemic combined to produce unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression at the end of 2020.
But amid these challenges, Americans might actually have become more resilient. A striking fact is that despite many dire predictions that suicide rates would rise, they actually fell by a substantial amount. It’s not clear why suicide dropped, but some psychologists postulate that shared adversity and pulling together to overcome the challenges of Covid gave people a sense of hope, purpose and connection.
Americans’ mental well-being is not a peripheral or trivial question. It cuts to the very heart of what governments owe to their people; if the citizens aren’t thriving, the nation is not succeeding. A happy citizenry also means a more productive workforce, stronger families and a more effective nation in general.
As the U.S. emerges (albeit erratically) from an unprecedented period of pandemic and social unrest, it seems important to take stock of the nation’s mental and emotional health. How happy is America? And what can policymakers do to make the populace feel better?
Before we can figure out how to maximize happiness, we have to be able to measure it. This presents a stern challenge to even our best social scientists for the simple reason that happiness is a subjective emotional state. Most happiness data comes from surveys — researchers simply go around asking people how happy they are. But how do people know how to answer?
One way that people can quantify their own happiness is to compare it to how they felt in the past. But since people don’t always remember how they felt in the past, their reference points can change. This could be a major reason for the phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation refers to the fact that life events — losing one’s job, losing a limb, getting a divorce — tend to create only temporary changes in how happy people report they are. If you’re a person who usually rates their happiness as 5 on a scale of 1 to 7, then getting your arm amputated might make your typical response drop to a 2, but eventually it’ll probably rebound to a 4. Similarly, if you provide a poor person with a house, their happiness level might jump to 6 from 4, but will probably eventually drop back to a 5.
In fact, when I was a graduate student doing happiness research, we measured happiness at very high frequencies — asking people about their lives every day. We found that the response of happiness to personal events vanished not in a matter of months or years, but in a matter of days.
Why does happiness bounce back toward its previous level after major permanent life changes? One reason might be that a substantial component of happiness is dependent on deep-rooted personality traits — happy people are happy, unhappy people are unhappy, and life events simply have limited power to change this. But an alternative explanation is that people’s frame of reference changes — if you spend long enough feeling sad, it might start to feel normal, and your responses to surveys might drift back toward what they had been before.
On top of this, there’s the issue of whether surveys measure happiness the same way from individual to individual. One person might think it's arrogant and boastful to report their happiness at a maximum level, while another might feel like our up-by-the-bootstraps society expects them to say they’re happy all the time; after all, sadness might make other people feel uncomfortable or be perceived as self-indulgent. These two people would tend to give very different answers on happiness surveys, even if their subjective emotional state was the same! Some researchers conclude that cultural traits explain 20% of the differences on international happiness comparisons. But individual differences in survey response style might distort results on top of culture.
Because of these and other limitations, economists who study the effects of emotional states have poured cold water on the idea that happiness surveys could replace other traditional measures of well-being, such as GDP growth. But that doesn’t mean a happiness census is useless. And increasingly, researchers are trying to complement those polls with measures of real behavior. For example, in their study of American happiness during the pandemic, Blanchflower and Bryson looked at the rate at which people took drugs for anxiety and depression. This drug use peaked two weeks after Americans reported the greatest amount of anxiety and depression; which suggests that the survey responses were getting at how people really felt.
As flawed as they are, therefore, happiness surveys are generally measuring something real. They just need to be backed up by data on actual behavior whenever possible.
Are Americans Happy?
So how happy are Americans? Various surveys tell us different things, but most generally say that Americans are a little less happy than they used to be. For example, the General Social Survey finds that happiness peaked at 2.257 on a scale of 1 to 3 in the year 1993, but by 2018 had fallen to 2.178. A long-running University of Chicago survey found that overall happiness has been very stable since the mid-1970s, but that the percent of people saying they were “very happy” took an unprecedented nosedive around 2016 — when the current era of political and social unrest began. Meanwhile, Gallup’s poll shows the least change, with only a slightly lower percent saying they’re “very happy” or “fairly happy” since 1949.
These surveys all show very different trends, but the recent dip is cause for worry. The timing lines up fairly well with the heightened political unrest coinciding with Donald Trump's presidency, which is consistent with Blanchflower and Bryson’s 2020 data. Of course, it’s also plausible that unhappiness drives political events. Even with the causality running both ways, it seems clear that politics and social unrest are bound up closely with the mood of the nation.
There are other indications of a long-term decline in Americans’ emotional well-being, especially among the youth. A recent analysis of language patterns in books found more phrases associated with depression since the 1980s. Meanwhile, numerous studies show that young people are growing more socially isolated and disconnected, reporting fewer close friendships and engaging in fewer romantic relationships.
And then there are the behavioral trends. Though they fell in 2020, suicide rates have risen steeply since the turn of the century, from 10.4 per 100,000 people in the year 2000 to 14.2 per 100,000 in 2018. Young people have been among the hardest hit. Alcoholism and opiate abuse have also soared in the past two decades, giving rise to a sharp increase in what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair.”
In other words, while lots of attention is focused on the mental health consequences of Covid-19, it’s the longer-term rise in U.S. unhappiness that should worry us more. The disease will eventually vanish, but whatever was afflicting Americans’ mental health before Covid is likely to remain a problem.
How Can Americans Be Happier?
So what can be done to make Americans happier? Rates of psychotherapy and antidepressant use have risen strongly, but while these probably help to some degree, they've failed to stem the tide of dissatisfaction, depression, loneliness and self-destructive behavior. More fundamental solutions are called for.
An obvious place to begin is economic support. The success of the Covid relief bills showed that giving people cash is a viable policy for increasing material security throughout society; hopefully, programs like President Biden’s child tax credit will increasingly be used to relieve the burdens of poverty, precarity and the bewildering complexity and risk of modern life. Cash benefits could also compress the differences between social classes, making marriage a better proposition for the working class — positive family relationships are one of the key correlates of happiness. National health insurance would also take a huge burden off of many people’s minds.
Beyond economic programs, the country needs to address the root causes of unhappiness. Here we’re mostly waiting for psychologists to untangle exactly what’s getting Americans so down, but already we can start to see two likely culprits — social media and politic partisanship.
Social media use is well-known to correlate with symptoms of depression, as well as other mental health problems. There are some reasons to think it’s a causal effect. Heavier social media use in non-depressed young adults tends to predict development of depression later on. And in a 2019 study, a team of economists found that when experimental subjects were paid to turn off Facebook, they spent more time with humans in real life, and became happier.
This isn’t a slam-dunk case that social media is causing happiness to plummet. Various different studies paint a picture of a complex relationship between social media and well-being. And social media is unlikely to be behind the rise in opiate and alcohol abuse and suicide among older Americans. But the effect of young people being constantly online — interacting through a highly attenuated communication medium, in networks that are unnatural in both shape and size — needs further study. Humans didn’t evolve to be buried in their phones all day, and we may be taking time to adapt to these strange new social relations.
Analyses like that of Blanchflower and Bryson — and the University of Chicago’s poll — suggest that the biggest problem for current U.S. happiness is political division and discord. Social strife began to rise with the disputed presidential election of 2000, then increased with the War on Terror and the Iraq War, and finally exploded into full-blown, perpetual open warfare in the mid-2010s. Social media, especially Twitter and much of Facebook, became a swamp of hatred and denunciation, with the loudest and most aggressive people in the country being given the biggest bullhorns.
How is it possible to be truly happy in a nation where half of your countrymen are your bitter enemies and you’re under constant danger of being denounced as a traitor by your own allies? For most normal human beings, it's not possible. The radical polarization of the parties, the bitter clashes of competing social movements, and the outrage-amplifying effect of social media have combined to produce a toxic soup in which only the most perverse can swim comfortably.
Ultimately, in order for Americans to regain their emotional well-being and mental health, this age of unrest and division must end. Exactly how that happens, no one knows yet. But until it does, restoring general happiness in the U.S. will be a tall order.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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