Why Aren’t We Happy?

Americans today enjoy a growing economy, low unemployment and an ever-improving standard of living – but we aren’t getting any happier.

The 2018 World Happiness Report and Gallup’s Well-Being Index reveal American happiness at its lowest level since 2006, with every single state in the union in decline since 2009. Americans report feeling more depression, more day-to-day worry, less “positive energy” from family and friends, and less satisfaction with their work and personal lives than they did a year ago. America is bummed out.

It’s tempting to assume this drop-off is another symptom of today’s political, racial and class tension, but falling happiness isn’t reserved for the “forgotten class” or a sign that Republicans have succeeded in their quest to “own the libs” into permanent depression.1 Surprisingly, more affluent and educated states have experienced a steeper decline in happiness than states with lower median incomes or less educational achievement. The deterioration of our national mood didn’t begin with the last election cycle either; Gallup found that well-being is higher in states that disapprove of the President.

Political, racial and economic divides contribute to the happiness equation, but none of these divides correlate strongly with the recent slump. Something else is going on here.

Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist and co-author of the World Happiness Report, argues that the US “offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness in all the wrong places.”

The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental American right. It’s time we learn to look in the right direction.

If the US needs a lesson in happiness, Yale University is a good place to start. The most popular course in school history, PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life emphasizes a new type of wealth that is critical to the pursuit of happiness: time affluence. If financial affluence is having plenty of money, time affluence is having plenty of time.

Both time and money influence our happiness, but money has diminishing returns. Research has consistently shown that, once you pass a baseline threshold (Nobel-prize winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton believe that threshold is $75k), more money doesn’t make you any happier. Time is different. While we can accumulate a theoretically infinite amount of money, we get the same number of minutes in every day of our lives.

Would you accept a 20% raise if it meant doubling your commute, or adding another ten hours to your work week? If you would, you’re valuing money affluence over time affluence – and research shows you’re probably not as happy as people who prioritize time first. Researchers offered participants $40 under the condition that they spend the cash on a time-saving purchase, like ordering takeout instead of cooking dinner themselves. The same people were later given another $40 to spend on a material good, like clothes or shoes. Participants reported that they got more enjoyment when they bought a break from the stress of time pressure.

Maybe money can buy happiness – we just have to spend it right.

Professor Laurie Santos, the teacher of PSYC 157, makes sure students understand the value of time with a simple exercise. One day, students arrive to class to find flyers that read “Class is canceled. Go practice time affluence. You have one free hour.” The only rule is that students can’t fill that hour with work.

One over-stressed student was so grateful for the hour of stress-free time that she broke down in tears. I’d bet that a $100 bill wouldn’t have elicited the same tears of joy.

For those who don’t have the means to support themselves, who haven’t reached the threshold where income stops improving well-being, time affluence is a secondary concern. But for the many Americans reaping the benefits of a thriving economy, low unemployment, and the best standard of living in history, how we manage our time is a likely cause of declining happiness.

The problem starts with our values. Having plenty of money is a status symbol, while having an abundance of time is shameful. America is indoctrinated in the cult of busyness, consumed by the idea that a lack of time is a point of pride. Back-to-back meetings, marathon study sessions and red-eye flights are badges of honor, tangible proof of a person’s value and achievement. We shouldn’t glorify laziness, but do we need to celebrate misery?

Our current busyness is most troubling because, in theory, we should have more time than ever before. John Maynard Keynes famously predicted in 1928 that technological efficiency would be so great, and prosperity so widespread, that people would essentially run out of work to do. The 40 hour work week would become obsolete in a world of heightened productivity.

Technology fulfilled its promise of increased efficiency, yet people around the world report feeling as if they have less time than ever before. Today’s technology isn’t just an efficiency engine – it’s a vacuum, sucking up more and more of our day. Smartphones and computers make it easier to get things done, but they are also designed to hijack our attention to the point of addiction. The professional world is more productive than ever, but the line between our personal and work time has never been blurrier. Stepping away from the office is tough when the office has no limits.

The problem isn’t just that technology makes it harder to protect our time. The time that technology consumes rarely lines up with anyone’s idea of happiness. Social media, the ultimate time-suck, is shown to enable unhealthy social comparison and has been linked to increased feelings of anxiety, loneliness, sadness, or envy.

The world of work is no better. If our newfound efficiency really reduced the amount of time we need to work, as Keynes suggested, what did we fill all the hours with? David Graeber, anthropologist and author of Bullshit Jobs, has a theory. Spoiler alert: we are increasingly filling our work hours with bullshit.

Instead of freeing ourselves from time-intensive labor, we’ve invented a never-ending stream of inane crap to keep people busy well beyond the 40-hour work week. How much of your week is spent on expense reporting, schedule managing, best practices reviewing, certification seeking, or other pointless junk? If you’re lucky, you only spend a handful of hours a week on worthless tasks. If you’re like the poor soul quoted below, one of Graeber’s interview subjects, bullshit might be the cornerstone of your entire career:

I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds2 to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.

To recap – once we pass a baseline threshold, having more time makes us happier than making more money. Americans consistently fail to value their time appropriately, choosing instead to glorify busyness as a sign of status and value. Meanwhile, technological efficiency isn’t saving us time. Instead, technology is eating away at our precious minutes and hours, filling them with unhealthy social comparison and meaningless bullshit.

So yeah, even well-off Americans are kinda bummed out.

Cheer up! There’s a silver lining to the happiness problem. Remember that bit about our growing economy and constantly-improving standard of living? It’s all true! For all the problems we face, right now is the best time to be alive in history. You are kidding yourself if you think otherwise. You can listen to any song, watch any movie, or travel anywhere on the planet with more ease than ever before. If you are alive today, you have a better chance to be wealthy, healthy and comfortable than at any other time in history. We have UberEats, air conditioning, and Beyoncé. Life is good, man.

Things aren’t perfect, and some undeniably have it better than others, but we have more to be happy about than humans ever have. We just need to make the time to enjoy it.

 

 

 

  1. To be fair, they’re making impressive progress.
  2. About $16k.

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