Are Americans Happy?

Uber drivers can surprise you. They can shake up your thinking. They can get you to pause and reflect differently on the day.

A recent early-morning haul with an Uber driver to what I knew would be a long and unpleasant meeting did just that for me. The driver was an Ethiopian immigrant who had been in the United States for about a decade. He and his wife had come here for a better life. His two children were born here.

At first he was quiet, presuming I didn’t want any conversation at this hour. When the freeway traffic slowed our progress, I started to draw him out a bit. I was glad I did.

His basic sense was that America was filled with unlimited opportunities for anyone who wanted to work hard and apply themselves. The ability to make money here—legally and with relatively few logistical obstacles—was virtually unlimited. He actually loved being an Uber driver the past five years. He had control over his time, could spend time with his family, and while the income he earned was modest by American standards, he felt good about the quality of life it allowed him compared with his earlier years in Ethiopia, where money and opportunity were scarce.

What he didn’t understand was why so few Americans he met were happy.

To the contrary, he found most of the Americans he encountered unhappy. The people who rode in his car, no matter how well dressed or where they were going, largely seemed unhappy. The people he saw shopping in WalMart, with all the abundant product offerings on the shelf at such low prices, seemed mostly unhappy. When he took his children to school, which was free, most of the children and parents he encountered seemed unhappy.

He wondered why.

While he wouldn’t trade his life in America for any chance at a permanent return to Ethiopia, he shared that in his younger years, whenever he walked down the road, he would smile broadly and wave hello to everyone he passed, known to him or not. He said he tried that when he initially came to this country, but people looked at him like he was mentally unbalanced, so he stopped.

He told me in his village if someone didn’t come out of their home for a few days, it was normal to knock on the door and see if that person was okay. If they were sick, it was normal to ask if they needed anything from the market and to get it for them without asking in advance for payment. He said to do that here might land him in jail.

He told me when anyone in the village had any good fortune, the entire village would celebrate, and the person who enjoyed the good fortune would be predisposed to share it in small ways without anyone asking. He said when he moved into his current neighborhood, the advice he received from previous immigrants was to keep to himself, let neighbors be strangers, and not to expect to give or get much of anything from strangers.

His conclusion after a decade in the United States was that it was indeed a rich nation of financial opportunity, but with financial success of any level, happiness was not part of the deal. His promise to himself was to put happiness first, and anytime financial gain would compromise it, to put the need for joy above the need for more income.

It was a curious but not unfamiliar conversation that served as an ironic preamble to my next eight hours in a conference room with extremely large numbers being floated around various outcomes to a dispute, and not a single person smiling for the entire day.

I don’t actually think about this a lot, because I haven’t been taught to think about it a lot. I have been taught to work hard, to compete, to give my all at all times, to be respectful of the law, but to be wary of all opponents who might unfavorably tilt the apparent zero-sum game of financial haggling.

I do agree there is something very American about this. We were a country of underdogs that became a nation of global leadership. There is a Puritan work ethic we instinctively embrace that dates back to the first freezing winters of our original colonies. Sacrifice for the future is a mostly shared American value, and our popular literature seldom misses a beat in reminding us that winning is everything.

For many Americans, winning is who and what we are, what we aspire to be, and its cost is a necessary evil, a byproduct of the commitment it takes to be the very best at whatever we set out to do.

Are we happy? I am sure many of us are, and my driver from Ethiopia just hasn’t had the chance to meet you if you are.

It may be worth considering some mounting evidence to the contrary.

We are approximately 5% of the global population.

We generate more than 20% of the world’s total income.

We consume upwards of a quarter of the world’s natural resources.

That is a disproportionate share of global wealth that should be making a lot of people happy.

Our citizens own 40% of the world’s guns.

We consume 80% of the world’s opioids.

We incarcerate 25% of the world’s total prison population.

We have over 1000 active hate groups whose only point of validation is to buy into the lie of their ordained genetic superiority.

Does that sound happy?

No matter what we have, we seem to want more. We are a consumer society. Marketers like me helped make us that way. The problem with consumerism is that it has no logical end. If you have an antiquated iPhone 8, you are meant to want a reconceived iPhone 11. You’ll stare at it just as much, but it will have all the new features you think will make you happier. The stress created by having to pay for it is simply a factor of the replacement value.

Although we have all that wealth collectively, we embody income inequality almost as a leaderboard to remind us of the winners of the zero-sum game. We invented the 1%. Instead of trying to work it toward 10%, we are working toward 0.1%.

Too often I think we forget that we weren’t always this prosperous. Prior to the 20th century, we were a nation that barely survived its own Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history. We managed to prevail from two subsequent world wars in part because our continental homeland was not invaded.

We emerged after the Second World War as an industrial power with disproportionate military might and a shared conviction to democratize individual earning power. We enjoyed enormous quality living benefits in this brief window that globalization is now spreading more evenly around the planet.

Any notion of this as entitlement is ill placed. We were clever, innovative, opportunistic, and hard-working. The stars lined up behind us. The turnaround in our fortune was epic. I wonder what we really learned from that unparalleled shift in fate. Humility doesn’t seem to make the report card.

We discovered and celebrated optimism as core to our shared values, but did we protect the essence of its desired outcome—the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t see people in public places smile a lot, or visit the neighbors they don’t know, or wave joyfully to strangers on the street. I could be a little isolated, and I am sure there are many of you reading this who will disagree. If you are surrounded by happy Americans, do you think you are the norm or exception?

Maybe the notion of being happy is the problem itself. Perhaps it is antithetical to our nation’s DNA. If we presume that’s the case, and most of us aren’t going to be truly happy in America no matter what we achieve, perhaps there is another aspiration we can embrace.

Instead of trying to be happy, which is a long way to reach from our present core, maybe we can just be more appreciative of the opportunities around us.

I’m not suggesting a Pollyanna happy dance, given the vast discrepancies in our economic and social culture. I’m wondering if it is possible that, like the Ethiopian immigrant I met, we can identify a perspective around an appreciation for whatever benefits might be coming our way.

It could be as simple as relying on the descriptor “more”that we can be ever so slightly more appreciative of what we have and still keep grinding away at the hardships of our reality. The ramifications around empathy, privilege, and life satisfaction would seem unlimited. We might even begin to understand the inescapable realities of globalization.

Is it possible that Americans can be more appreciative?

I really don’t know. I think I’ll ask my next Uber driver.

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Photo: Pexels

A Beguiling 20%


This month our nation celebrated its 242nd birthday. As I was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium on July 4 watching a spectacular and patriotic fireworks display (following a wonderful midseason win) something quite obvious but strange occurred to me:

I have been alive for over 20% of our nation’s history.

That may not seem curious to you, but it does to me. No one in Russia, China, or most of western Europe can say that.

It is only because we are such a young nation that our lives constitute such a significant portion of our nation’s entire state of being.

I have been trying to put that in context. I am over a half-century in age, and the nation is less than five half centuries in age. For sake of context, I have tried to segment those de facto quintiles into what I have experienced as current events (the most recent 20%) and what I must study as history.

Latest 20%: Age of economic triumph, the information age, and age of civil rights.

Prior 20%: Age of two world wars, one Great Depression, and vast immigration.

Middle 20%: Age of Civil War and Reconstruction.

Second 20%: Age of Manifest Destiny & Industrial Revolution.

Initial 20%: Age of our Founding Fathers, American Revolution, and the visionary foundation of secular democratic governance.

It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time for all that to have happened when you think about it. I guess that’s because it really isn’t. What’s 242 years? These days, it’s about three full lifetimes. If you time them correctly, you could talk to someone who talked to someone who knew someone who experienced Independence Day as current events.

That’s just wild. Mind-boggling! And look how far we’ve come!

Or have we?

Well, we have sent humans to the moon and probes to Jupiter and Pluto. We have air conditioning, spiffy kitchen appliances, and running water in our homes (when we don’t run out). We have lots and lots of TV channels. We have supercharged computers in our pockets we call mobile phones. We have this Internet thing that has eliminated almost all barriers to information access and makes globalization a reality.

Yet we still fight a lot, among ourselves and with faraway strangers. It seems that in every one of those quintiles we fought a lot. Maybe fighting is a constant in almost every nation’s evolution. History would seem to reinforce that recurrence.

We haven’t had all that many U.S. presidents. Our current office holder is only number 45. Many recaps of U.S. presidents show that many of the individuals who held the office weren’t very good at it in hindsight. Luckily, there are a few most of us agree regardless of political affiliation will always be American heroes. There’s Lincoln. There’s Washington. I think it might start to get controversial after that.

I wonder if the top people in charge of running our nation day-to-day in all its complexity—whether elected officials or policy makers or military leaders or business executives or educators—are in awe of their 20% stage time. I doubt it. The truly influential people I know and the many I study from afar seem to like their gigs a lot, but in my observation very few of them seem in awe.

I also wonder how many of the leaders guiding our 20% are good listeners. Do they hear the studied voices among us? Do they listen for the quieter voices who choose not to enter the knock-down, drag-out drama of overpowering influences and powerful, conflicted mandates? Do they immerse themselves in understanding the previous 80% of our time as a nation where we might have emerged a winner but didn’t necessarily embrace a sense of humility and real justice in establishing a fair set of rules? Do they strive for a true sense of vision or just winning for bragging rights and lovely take-home prizes?

I also find myself thinking about things I have lived through largely from inception, particularly the rapid compounding of computer technology. I imagine this is how people felt who went from horses and buggies to the Model T, having seen automobiles take over roads that were created for drawn carriages. I can’t remember a time before air travel, but my dad can. When I think about his lifespan, the numerator and denominator tell me he has lived through almost a third of the nation’s history. He may achieve a beguiling 40%!

I thought life was breathtakingly scientific when I sat in front of a black-and-white CRT eating Space Food Sticks while NASA astronauts blasted into orbit. Now I write about that as nostalgia while pretty much every public document in human history is available to me by typing on this keyboard into a conceptual framework of storage we simply refer to as the cloud.

Why take pause on the magnitude of a quintile? I guess for one reason because I am naturally sentimental about milestones. All forks in the road of consequence inspire my introspection, giving me excuse if not reason to try to put into perspective the meaning of our timeline.

Yet more than that, I am particularly absorbed in trying to make sense of the coming quintile, which by all stretches of the imagination I will not see resolved. I suppose if lucky I may live to see our nation on its 275th birthday, but there is not chance I will see our Tricentennial.

Am I worried what we might become collectively between now and then? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the depth of my concern. I guess that will give me much to write about as we walk forward together through future milestone celebrations. Between now and then, I can only hope that the nation’s leadership does embrace the gravitas of our current context.

America is an idea more than anything. Promising ideas need to be nurtured, not battered.

Speaking of milestones, this happens to be my 200th blog post since I launched CorporateIntel in 2011. Along the way I have met hundreds of interesting new people both virtually and in person. Writing is a solitary endeavor until you push the Publish button on your text editor. This magnificent innovation has opened my life to so many minds I would never otherwise have encountered. When we share ideas and swap stories, technology goes into the background and our human thoughts take precedence over the engineering that facilitates our interactions. As long as human interaction and exchange overrides the technical wonder of its creation, you can count on me for another 200.

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Photo: Pexels

And It’s One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

I know people are exhausted with the political dialogue. I am as well. Government is not meant to be this far forward in our lives. It is meant to be the structural framework behind the scenes so we can pursue the individual and shared goals of our lives. These are very unusual times.

Extraordinary times.

But let’s not forget what is at stake. This is not petty bickering or pointless head bashing over immovable viewpoints. I believe we have unveiled competing visions of American purpose and responsibility, and many of the values that separate us seem irreconcilable. Until the millennium I believed Americans had more in common than not when it came to the notion of purpose. Now I have a hard time seeing the glue binding us together.

That’s what I think we’re fighting over and what I think is at stake. That’s why our social media dialogue with each other is increasingly less civil, and that’s causing polar opposites to either stop talking with each other or openly despise each other. Unity for unity’s sake is an unholy compromise and not an option for me. We either have a treasure trove of shared values or we don’t. If we don’t, the divisiveness can’t be mended because morality is at the core of personal definition.

If we don’t agree then we don’t agree. I see little evidence that at the core of national purpose there is broad agreement. It is the purpose of leadership to build consensus out of difference to unite disparate elements in strength. Politics is a different game, and it can be a nasty one. If there are competing visions of America up for grabs, I see little choice but to listen closely and then stand firm on moral imperatives. If we find that we have irreconcilable differences, then there is a reason why.

I have already detailed a laundry list of apparently irreconcilable differences in a previous post. Our lack of consensus around civil rights, gender rights, a woman’s right to choose, economic inequality, healthcare, environmental justice, personal weapons, educational opportunity, and America’s international posture are ripping us apart with little healing on the horizon. Let me take a run at boiling it down to just three things I believe are at the core of our national impasse, sharing my own very personal beliefs:

  1. I believe we live in a global community. I believe that with immense prosperity comes immense responsibility and humility. To put our own national interest entirely first denies the leadership stake we have taken in the world as a result of disproportionate consumption of natural resources and stage time. None of this is incompatible with my love of country.
  2. I believe the highest purpose of government is peaceful prosperity, evidenced by a profound commitment to establishing and maintaining a level playing field. Government rises to admiration in the administration of justice and fairness. I don’t belive the highest purpose of government is a tax cut. I’m not even sure a tax cut makes my top ten, since most of the benefit will go to wealthy people whose lives won’t be changed by it. Tax reform focused on true fairness makes my top ten.
  3. I believe government leadership is about public service. It is selfless. It is in awe of its own responsibility and acts accordingly with intellectual rigor and behavioral reserve. It is not authoritarian or autocratic and does not seek to position itself as uniformly superlative. Exemplary leaders bring out the best in us, not the worst. I don’t believe a big job title is about self-aggrandizement, bullying, sloppy thinking, whim, or egomaniacal hubris.

We seem to be descending into a culture war. We’ve already proven we are capable of a Civil War. Is it absolutely unthinkable that could happen again? Try talking to some people who ardently disagree with you on your deepest convictions. Then you decide if we’ve all learned history’s most vital lessons.

I need to focus on my family and friends, my business, and my dreams, same as you, but I’m being emotionally battered by the scope of this attack on my values. This is where my head is at, and I feel a generational obligation to champion resistance. I admire journalists and the media when they take their job seriously. I am a writer so I am part of the media, and I choose words with discipline and scrutiny. Most professional writers I know do the same, despite the click bait and fake news that tempts hacks. To frame the media as our enemy is purely ignorant and dangerous. Close reading, observation, and listening saves lives and is the cornerstone of cultural achievement.

I’m not willing to cross my own lines for false harmony. I know the same is true for those who vehemently disagree with me and feel their convictions are being violated. This probably will end badly, but it’s always crucial to know what we’re fighting for. In these extraordinary times, it is the soul of our nation.

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Post Title: H/T Country Joe and the Fish

Image: Three Flags by Jasper Johns / Whitney Museum of American Art

Now Wrestling with Normalcy

peacePeople I know on the right tell me the way I continue to feel  unbalanced, lacking foundational equilibrium, wondering what shared values remain among our vast nation that’s how they felt when Barack Obama was elected and now we get to experience the same emotion. I want to have empathy that acknowledges their reflection, but it’s hard for me to grasp the counterpoint.

When Obama was elected we had started an unjust war, crashed the real estate market on unregulated bank speculation, crashed the stock market causing desperate people to liquidate retirement holdings at half their value, and unemployment was spiraling. The night of his election supporters across the nation spontaneously danced in the streets. When Donald Trump was elected, many of the same people who danced for Obama marched in protest against Trump, but I saw no one dancing for Trump. Is repealing the burdens of the Obama administration a cause equally worth celebrating?

I’m not mourning politics. I’m trying to come to terms with shared values, norms of civility, and making sense of my entire education  classroom instruction, professional experience, and community engagement. We can’t all be right about the Trump agenda and approach. If I’m not in the majority, I’m misaligned with about half the people in the places I travel. This is about spiritual identity and wondering what it means to be American.

This is not sour grapes because my team lost and someone else’s won. I didn’t suffer isolation and questioning of self when the Dodgers lost the NLCS and by the way, the victorious Cubs fans visiting Chavez Ravine were pretty cool. This is way beyond a team losing. It’s about losing the team I thought my great grandparents came here to join.

The strange part is, I am personally likely to benefit from Trump’s financial policies, as long as none of his fringe followers assault me for my heritage. I believe the people hungry this Thanksgiving who bought his story will still be hungry the next four Thanksgivings. They will discover they were conned and I will still have empathy for them and be fighting for their human and civil rights.

Yet if you tell me the way I feel on this Thanksgiving spiritually empty   is how you felt when Obama won, I actually feel bad for you. This is a feeling no one should have, that maybe we don’t have enough in common to share the holiday Abraham Lincoln envisioned when he created it during the Civil War. I can’t get over what happened, what our nation just did and what we might do next. I wonder if Obama’s equally offended opponents will get past what they believe was the moral wrong in his election.