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.