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.

_______________

Photo: Pexels

Advertisements

Let’s Be Careful Out There

The private reaction I received to last week’s post on career opportunities was quite overwhelming.  I expected to get a few calls asking for similar consultations from people I know trying to decide between this or that gig, and I did, but the breadth of emotion I received in reaction to the first paragraph — the seemingly unmovable 9% national unemployment factor — reinforced for me just how far this epidemic has reached.  A few years ago, I remember hearing about how many of my college classmates could not afford to attend our 25th reunion.  That was eye-opening and unsettling.  This is much worse.

Look around you.  The impact is everywhere.  People need jobs.  People need opportunity.  People need leadership.  People need purpose.  They are wondering if anyone is listening.  I don’t mean running for office, I mean listening.  Caring.  Responding.  It is hard to see much evidence that any response is on par with the outcry.

For the past few years since the recession began, it would seem many people have been suffering if not in silence, then at least maintaining a difficult quiet.  Of late that pain has become manifest in anger.  The anger we are seeing expressed by Occupy Wall Street is one form of reaction, but there are others all around us.  If you are not personally impacted, just listen to the dialogue around you.  Listen, really listen.  You may be surprised at what you hear, and who is saying it.

Compassion is a noble reflection that we celebrate usually in the final few months of each year during the annual holiday season.  Regardless of our various faiths, public messages of Peace on Earth become evident in everything from retail sales displays to city street decorations.  Then shortly after the Rose Bowl, we take down all the signs with all those slogans and catch phrases and get back to normalcy with the new year.  Can we afford to do that this year, with all of the requests for outreach we are hearing from friends and acquaintances?  I wonder if this time maybe it’s different.

Each holiday season I look forward to a touring rock band known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra that puts on a theatrical spectacle with a tremendous amount of meaning captured for me best in the following few lines from a song called Old City Bar:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

I usually post these lyrics around the holidays, but I thought I’d get an early start so the sentiment does not get lost in the year-end noise.  We need compassion now and year round.  Some people are going to ask you for help.  Others are not going to feel as comfortable asking, so maybe you can offer it without the ask.  As I discovered in the response to my post last week, sometimes it’s as easy as being a good listener to someone who has lost hope, having chased down every opportunity they can and not found work.  For others you can make a phone call or two, or help edit their resume, or simply remind them that they are good at what they do and these are extraordinary times.  Just returning a phone call can be a very big deal.  The point is that your compassion will go a long way right now, further and deeper than you can comprehend.  Remember Pay It Forward?  It’s always a good time as Steve Jobs would say to make a brand deposit.  Now is an especially good time, never better.  Someday you too will need a withdrawal.

There’s one more thing on my mind this week besides reminding us all to be compassionate, to help where we can, and to not let the message of the holidays flicker out when the crowds leave the Rose Bowl.  There remains a good deal of misunderstanding on all sides of the equation as to whom we can blame for our problems, the catastrophic impact of hyperbole and invective, how simplistic notions of corrective strategies can be naive, and whether justice is a shared ideal that can be broadly and fairly enacted.  When you combine the complexity of all that anxiety with the pain and anger that seems to be spiraling, you have a very bad brew.  The potential for rotten things to happen — events that cannot be reversed, stalemates that cannot be reconciled, words that cannot be taken back, violence that will be regretted — becomes a turbine gaining momentum, suddenly with its own inertia.

Certainly we all want change for the better, regardless of whether we agree on the definition of better.  What we can agree on is certain definitions of harm — physical harm to individuals, extended harm to the economy, permanent harm to our democracy.  Business enterprise is not all wrong, investment is what drives opportunity; there are no jobs without investment, and there will be no investment without risk and return, that is the backbone of free enterprise and prosperity.  A nonviolent protest against unfairness is not wrong, there is a message in the expression of pain and anger we need to hear; every one of us plays a role in this economy as a consumer, that voice cannot be taken away, and that voice says people want to work.  Real trouble begins when an impasse cannot be bridged because too many people decide that it cannot be bridged.  The path through that impasse is ours to negotiate, one at a time, with each other.  It is the very compassion of one person helping one person that gets the wheels moving again.  We don’t have to wait for a grand proclamation of resolution to express humility.  To not do so is to let a fire burn that we needn’t allow consume all that we have built together.

People always wonder if they can make a difference, if any individual can make a difference.  The answer is yes, one individual can make a difference to another individual, and that can become a movement.  The opposite choice is to allow the stalemate to divide us.  That seems like a dangerous choice.

On the groundbreaking 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, a police drama set in an extremely troubled and decayed metropolis, the avuncular Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played until his own premature passing by Michael Conrad) would conclude roll call each week with the words, “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”  I think for the foreseeable future that is very good advice.