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Science

Americans are becoming less happy, and there’s research to prove it

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The average American is “pretty happy,” according to new data on happiness from the General Social Survey.
(Dreamstime)
Washington Post

Life in America keeps getting more miserable, according to the latest data from the General Social Survey, one of the longest-running and most highly regarded public opinion research projects in the nation.

On a scale of 1 to 3, where 1 represents “not too happy” and 3 means “very happy,” Americans on average give themselves a 2.18 — just a hair above “pretty happy.” That’s a significant decline from the nation’s peak happiness, as measured by the survey, of the early 1990s.

The change is driven by the number of people who say they’re not too happy: 13% in 2018 compared with 8% in 1990. That’s a more than 50% increase in unhappy people.

Other recent research confirms this trend. The latest World Happiness Report, released this week, finds that a separate measure of overall life satisfaction fell by 6% in the United States between 2007 and 2018.

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“Even as the United States economy improved after the end of the Great Recession in 2009,” that report noted, “happiness among adults did not rebound to the higher levels of the 1990s, continuing a slow decline ongoing since at least 2000.”

Economists have become more interested in happiness in recent years, partly because of the growing realization that traditional economic measures — such as unemployment or gross domestic product — are incapable of fully capturing the state of human welfare.

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Happiness research is “a useful antidote to the tendency of economists to focus exclusively on material determinants of social welfare,” as then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put it in a commencement address in 2010. “GDP is not itself the final objective of policy.”

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There are many determinants of happiness in the United States. This year’s World Happiness Report, for instance, focuses on the role of digital media, noting that many of the activities correlated with unhappiness among young Americans — spending time on the internet, listening to music alone, using social media — typically happen on a computer or cellphone.

That study also cites the opioid epidemic, and the poor state of American health in general, as both drivers and symptoms of American unhappiness.

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Breaking out General Social Survey data among different demographic groups also offers some clues about the changing nature of American happiness.

Republicans, for instance, have maintained a consistent happiness edge over Democrats since the 1970s. The two trend lines generally move in tandem and don’t appear to show much response to changes in the occupancy of the White House.

One potential explanation is Republicans’ greater religiosity, which other research has linked to happiness and life satisfaction.

Similarly, the data show that white Americans are usually happier than black Americans, although that gap has narrowed in recent years.

The differences could hinge on their economic situations — white families, on average, make more money and are much wealthier than black ones, and research shows that money does indeed buy happiness. The financial differences are largely attributed to the discrimination black families face, and inequity has a direct effect on the well-being of black Americans.

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The urban-rural happiness gradient also is shrinking. In the 1970s, the residents of rural areas were about 10% happier in absolute terms than their big-city counterparts. But the two groups are very close now, and some researchers suspect that the strong preference for urban life among millennials is a factor.

Looking at responses by self-reported economic class offers a complicated picture of happiness.

Americans identifying as lower or middle class report a modest decline in happiness since the 1990s. But the picture is drastically different among the upper class, for whom happiness plateaued in the 1990s, dropped steeply around 2008, and has been rising steadily ever since.

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One of the largest drivers of happiness in the General Social Survey is health. As of 2018, the happiness gap between those who say their health is “poor” and those who say it’s “good” or “excellent” is about one-quarter of the entire scale in absolute terms. Rendered on a happiness scale from 0 to 100, for instance, the least healthy would rate their well-being at about a 38, while the healthiest would be somewhere near 65.

Perhaps more concerning than the absolute gap between the two is the fact that it has grown over the years, fueled chiefly by a decline in happiness among those who say their health is poor. This suggests that illness in America is becoming more difficult to deal with and exerting a greater toll on the well-being of patients. The potential culprits here are numerous: Soaring medical expenses probably play a role, as do the frustrations of dealing with private insurance companies that have a great deal of power in determining which treatments get covered and paid for.

This last finding echoes data presented in the World Happiness Report: Our current state of national well-being is tied, in large part, to various public health challenges.

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The most daunting indicator in this regard may be the ongoing decline in life expectancy. The United States is in the midst of the longest ongoing decline in average life expectancy since World War I, fueled in large part by rising rates of suicide and fatal drug overdoses. This despite the fact that the nation is also in one of the longest economic expansions in its history.

The declining life expectancy and happiness numbers suggest that the fruits of that expansion are not being distributed equally among the Americans who are making it happen.


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