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

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I Was On Fox Business Network

Varney 041714Last week I was invited to appear on Varney & Company, the midday (EDT) market commentary on Fox Business Network hosted by Stuart Varney. It was an opportunity to talk about my novel, This is Rage, and how some of the themes it encompasses apply to current tensions in the Bay Area around affordable housing, income inequality, and the more heated rhetoric of late around our ability to discuss and resolve complex social issues rather than pour rocket fuel on the fire pit.

I didn’t think the live TV interview would be a walk in the woods, and to be honest, I’m not unhappy with it. Varney said what he had to say, I said what I had to say, and I appreciated the near five minutes on-air to promote my book. The strange part for me was what followed. Here are a few of the tweets:

U VILE SOCIALIST COMMIE POS I FELT RAGE WHEN U WERE TALKING!

U R a SOCIALIST donkeyshit4brains COMMUNIST traitor U DO NOT BELIEVE IN CAPITALISM OR LIBERTY I wanted to reach thru screen n STRANGLE your ignorant ass!

Ken is a fool – his comment that if you are rich you should be happy to pay whatever is asked of you – priceless!!

And this comment, posted on my Amazon page:

Saw Goldstein on a Biz program and turns out he’s just another Jew who believes government is not stealing enough from us. Why are so many Jews of this collectivist mindset?

I am not sure what I said to upset those people to that extent, nor did I go on the show to talk about tax policy. My point was rather straightforward: when you hear an outcry, listen, and before you dig in your heels and fan the flames of a conflict, ask yourself if there is something you can do to ease the tension. I do think the repercussions of widening inequality will continue to be severe, not only on moral grounds but in the name of good business. Historically it has been the buying power of the middle class that fuels corporate earnings, and that middle class can remain strong only if income levels do not further polarize. To know my career historywhich was strangely not mentioned in the introduction to the piece, though I was carefully vetted for my credentials prior to the interviewis to know that I believe in our capitalist system and have been a fortunate beneficiary of investment and free-market economics. Were Varney and I really that far apart, or were theatrics applied to make it seem we were further apart than we were? Once I was labeled an outsider in the Fox system, was I simply fair game for rejection by the loyalist audience?

You have to wonder, if someone disagreed with my point of view, would it be ludicrous to expect a tweet like this from a genuinely concerned observer who might even choose not to remain anonymous:

Ken, rent control is not a solution that works in our economy, let the market decide prices or the system will fail.

Of course it would be utopian to expect that kind of exchange, but perhaps it is not meant to be by media design. Ratings follow the heat, and there is more viral value in stirring the pot than in civil discourse. As I explore in my own book, controversy can be a form of currency, whether organic or invented. If you don’t want to engage in the brawl, your voice may willingly go unheard. A recent piece in The Atlantic by Jon Lovett entitled “The Culture of Shut Up” noted the following:

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive—nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right—it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.

Lovett’s concern is that much of the manufactured outage emanating from entrenched media verticals aimed at driving inflamed social media response is antithetical to the free speech it is supposed to represent. I think he is onto something. An awful lot is being said, but how much of that speech is being crafted in considerable thought? If you do have something you feel is important to say, how willing are you to say it in a public forum if you know only seconds after the words leave your lips, strangers are at the ready to attack you, your character, and implications in any spontaneous string of words that may have slipped through your lips without the imposition of editing?

You bet, it’s scary. Want to know why a lot of people who might be good at public office have no interest in running for election? You must really have the courage of your convictions to say anything at all in a public forum, then have blubber-thick skin to weather the attack, and then the media-training skills to know when to hit back and when to walk away. Should the vitriol boil over, you might also worry whether any of those words could become expressions of violence, which curiously enough leads back to the very subject of my appearance on Varney: the outcry of people in the Bay Area being priced out of the housing market. Varney asked me whether this might become physical, to which I replied, I hope not. Some of it comes down to whether anybody is really listening to the authentic outcry, and whether they are playing it back as a media sound bite to amp up their numbers.

Can we have an intelligent discussion and debate about inequality in this country without throwing out memes like “class warfare” and “tax-the-rich socialism”? I think so. I like investing, I like motivating talent to achieve heroic goals, I like serving customers, and I like the longterm rewards that come from years of hard work. I also maintain a sense of empathy for those who are down on their luck, for those who are not in the right place at the right time, and for those who try hard but nobly fail at any endeavor. Are those radical views that cannot be reconciled when we talk? Well, if they can’t, maybe we shouldn’t talk. And there goes free speech.

When I sat in the little windowless room waiting for the prompt in my ear bud for the first question from Varney, I wasn’t thinking about tweets or memes or nasty reactions to my words. I was thinking about what he might ask me, and what I might say, and whether I would come across as credible. Maybe that was naive. Maybe I should be more worried about trying to exchange ideas where the intersection of those ideas is more valuable than what either of us might devise on our own. I had asked my dad the night before how to handle the interview if it got tough. He told me to just be myself. I think that was good advice. That’s who you see on the video. I’m okay with that.