According to a 2017 Louis Harris survey, two-thirds of American adults are unhappy. This is an astounding figure when you stop and think about it. If the goal of life is to achieve and maintain a certain level of happiness (as Thomas Jefferson would seem to imply in his famous Declaration), then the vast majority of us is missing the mark. How can this be? Modern civilization is veritably a cornucopia of comforts and pleasures, most of which our forebears could not have even imagined much less participated in. The Harris survey does not tell us, or even speculate. Allow me then, in my quest to have an opinion on every conceivable subject, to offer three possibilities. ☺

First, though, a little context concerning nomenclature: As discussed elsewhere in these pages, as well as in Beyond Chicken Soup, pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. They can easily be construed as such, with the former serving as sort of a false god (or fool’s gold) to the latter; however, while pleasure derives from focusing on ourselves, satisfying our every appetite and desire, and is fleeting, happiness derives from focusing on others, their essential health and well-being, and is enduring. We sometimes confuse the former with the latter by using the same language for both, similarly to the way we use the term ‘man’ to mean both ‘a man’ and ‘mankind.’ As a result, sometimes we are ‘happy’ in polishing off a Double Whopper, while other times we are ‘happy’ in giving up our shoes to a homeless person.

One reason the vast majority of us is unhappy, I offer, is because we are dissatisfied in our work, which tends to contribute little if anything of substance to the common good. It’s a paycheck. It keeps us from starving to death, it allows us to satisfy our pesky desires, but it derives little if any real meaning. It drains our soul instead of replenishing it. Question1: Why is retirement so fervently and universally coveted? Question2: Why is the first thing Megabucks winners do is to quit their job? Hmmm.

A second reason the vast majority of us is unhappy, I suggest, is because we are dissatisfied in our relationships, which, increasingly in our time, tend to be shallow, fleeting, one-sided, negative, or utterly absent. We humans are consummately social creatures. We require, we cannot live without, the close company of like-others.

A third reason the vast majority of us is unhappy, I offer, is because we are dissatisfied in who we are as a person. We are too plain to be happy, or too dim, or too awkward, or too inept, or too clueless, or – worst of all – too uncool. Question3: Why is the suicide rate in America at an all-time high?

2018-12-05T16:30:19+00:00December 5th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments


  1. Barry Cook December 5, 2018 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    Although you offered some fascinating hypotheses about why two thirds of Americans are unhappy, the 2017 Harris poll found that 31% of surveyed Americans claimed to be “very happy.” The same poll reported that 80% of those surveyed were either “very happy” or “generally happy.” I take this to mean that only about 20% of Americans in this survey were less than “generally happy.” I am happy about this finding, because it suggests that optimism continues pretty much unabated, in spite of troubles aplenty for the vast majority of people in this country. On the other hand, I’m somewhat skeptical because these data are based on the a possibly atypical minority of people who participate in online surveys, which was Harris’ methodology. So what do we actually know?

    It turns out that self-reported happiness is a widely-used indicator (of self-reported happiness.) Bhutan began to measure Gross National Happiness (self-reported happiness) of its impoverished and oft-oppressed population around 1972, because Gross National Product was such a disappointing measure for their government.

    There is a scholarly journal (The International Journal of Well-Being) on this subject area; cross-national comparisons in that journal found that the United States ranks among the happiest nations on the planet (by a self-reported happiness index). Research on happiness also finds that the strongest correlate of self-reported happiness is affluence – both among nations and within nations – but, surprisingly, the differences in happiness by affluence, race and gender in the US have moderated in recent decades — because the level of self-reported happiness has risen among lower income groups (even though income inequality is no better). Perhaps this resulted from a catchy song by Bobby McFerrin.

    Aside from the “findings” of general happiness, based on answers to an online poll by those rare souls who take the time and have the interest in participating (and who get little incentives for so doing, according to Harris’s website), the evidence of a miserable and grumpy population in this country is omnipresent. If people did satisfying and meaningful work, if they spent time with people they enjoyed, if they weren’t inundated by social comparisons with “celebrities” whose beauty and achievements are faked, they might have a chance to feel pretty good. There is so much to wear us down.

    A fact-check on suicide rates was an eye-opener. There has been a dramatic increase in the past twenty years, all across the US. The sharpest increase was among people in their fifties and sixties — why? Firearms and opiates seem to be the methods of choice — and some of the increase is a result of a particularly lethal new source of addiction. Is the addiction itself a symptom of unhappiness? Or is it a cause?

    Yet, in the end, the human spirit, the life force, the inexorable power of protoplasm can often solve problems and even find joy. We have the power to change the conditions of our existence — not only to ruin them, but also to enhance them. The Solstice is almost here, the days will get longer and brighter. Hope! Hang in there.

    • TomF December 6, 2018 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      Here’s How Happy Americans Are Right Now
      By Alexandra Sifferlin
      By many accounts, Americans are living in contentious times. Yet they report being happier in 2017 than they were in 2016, according the 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, shared exclusively with TIME. That’s not to say that Americans are especially happy overall; only 33% of Americans surveyed said they were happy. In 2016, just 31% of Americans reported the same.
      The Harris Poll, which has been conducting a happiness survey for the last nine years, surveyed 2,202 Americans ages 18 and older in May 2017. The survey was not designed to measure why Americans are or are not happy.

  2. Josh December 5, 2018 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    These are good insights. I may sound like a broken record, but I think the Buddha pretty much figured out the pain of modern civilization when it was in its infancy 2500 years ago. In a nutshell, he discovered that human beings are unlikely to find true peace and happiness if they do not cultivate a serious capacity for awareness and insight into the nature of our minds and our lives. Happiness and peace almost become a matter of dumb luck– stumbling into the right job, meeting the right partner, finding just the right set of circumstances. What the Buddha discovered is that the mind has the capacity to free itself from such intense dependence on circumstances for well-being. It’s worth noting that a focus on the well-being of others is part of the prescription.

  3. Matt Fitzgerald December 5, 2018 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Meaningful work has long been a key piece of my formula for happiness. I’m not saving the world, but I am able to self-actualize through my work and it does seem to affect some people in a positive way, and that’s enough for me. I wish more people were so fortunate.

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