The Harris Poll, one of the oldest and most prestigious, has reported that only 33 percent of Americans admit to being happy. In the United Nations’ World Happiness Report for 2019, the United States barely ekes out a spot in the top 20, a list that is dominated by Northern European countries, plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States nevertheless holds approximately 20 percent of the world’s prison population. From that 5 percent come nearly one-third of the world’s mass shooters. Another United Nations report includes the United States among the top eight “drug-addicted countries in the world,” with Americans consuming 75-80 percent of the global opiate supply.
Recent trends appear to validate Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” an empirical study documenting a loss of civic engagement and social interaction. Declines in the numbers attending religious services and club meetings, and in face-to-face interactions, also reflect a surprising degree of loneliness in our society; fully a quarter of Americans report that they have no one to talk with (or to) intimately. Hours of Internet use each day, visiting social media sites such as Instagram and watching television decrease social interaction with others. Again, our daily habits would appear to relate to unhappiness as both cause and effect. Over time, it would be surprising if our habit of zoning out on gadgets did not have political consequences.
Americans long have claimed that our country is No. 1 — in most things. And the United States offers citizens many advantages: It is the world’s largest economy and has the strongest military and intelligence apparatus. Its universities and think tanks rank with the finest anywhere. Its people are creative and productive. So why not a greater happiness quotient among the people?
Several reasons can be identified. There is a felt sense of powerlessness among millions, which clashes with our national identity as a democracy in which the people rule. The Harris Poll cited above reports that 75 percent of Americans say, “my voice is not heard in national decisions that affect me.” One consequence is that in the past dozen presidential elections turnout has never reached 60 percent of eligible voters.
The idea of self-empowerment remains alive but has eroded in recent years. We see it especially among blue-collar workers whose jobs in coal mines and auto factories are disappearing. Households fracture and communities suffer as the speed of economic (and cultural) change leave people frustrated. They see economic injustice; for many among them the American dream recedes as a consolatory idea.
When we consider that happiness reflects emotional states such as satisfaction, gratification, contentment, joy and gladness, except in conditions of war, terror, and debilitating illness, it is sensible to conclude that the ultimate responsibility for one’s happiness lies with individuals. Nevertheless, democratic governments too are interested in people’s happiness because it makes for a more durable society. Satisfied citizens are better family members and become involved in community life; they tend to volunteer and help others.
Among three positive steps that our governments could take to help, the first essential is campaign finance reform. Until the command of big money in politics is broken, average voters will suffer a formidable power disadvantage as multimillionaires and corporations are enabled to spend millions on elections and candidates.
A second worthy policy change is genuine tax reform, one that would prevent many in the upper one percent from enjoying tax rates that are effectively lower than those of middle class taxpayers. The happiest societies are those in which people share in the benefits of economic and political power.
A third change entails ending the gerrymandering of electoral districts. Millions of voters today cast ballots that count for less than those of other Americans. Difficult as it is to do, reform on this might be the silver bullet making America more democratic.
Without reform in these issues, Americans will continue to fall short of Jefferson’s vision that “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.