Is it possible that Americans might be poorer but happier in times of recession than in times of plenty?
The National Opinion Research Council at the University of Chicago tries to quantify how happy Americans are with a yearly poll. Since 1950, the number of Americans responding that they were "very happy" has steadily declined. Between 1970 and 1994 it dropped 5 full points, indicating that less than one-third of Americans were "very happy." In 2006, our happiness level was at a new low in spite of a healthy economy and record amounts of consumption per capita.
The year 1991 was a time of plenty for average Americans. We owned twice as many cars, drove twice as far, used 21 times more plastic, and traveled 25 times farther by air than did the average family in 1951, according to environmentalist Alan Durning. Our gross domestic product per person had tripled since the 1950s. Also rising was the square footage of the average house, and the circumference around our waists. However, homelessness increased, alcoholism and drug abuse statistics went up and divorce rates doubled.
Surveys have found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich people on the Forbes 400 list and the impoverished Maasai herdsman of East Africa. In contrast, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan decided to stop measuring GDP and replace it with a happiness index. Citizens of Bhutan are no longer measured by how productive their work is. Instead, they are measured by how happy they are in life.
"There is no necessary relationship between the level of possession and the level of well-being," said Thakur S. Powdyel, director of the Center for Education Research and Development in the Ministry of Education of the Royal Government of Bhutan, to The New York Times. As a result, household incomes in Bhutan are among the lowest in the world, but life expectancy has increased by 19 years and government funding is spent on education, healthcare and the environment.
In the United States, with a recession raging, we can still communicate instantly with people worldwide, eat fresh foods from the other side of the planet and watch more than 100 channels on television, night and day. We have mountains of stuff crammed into mountain-sized houses that hold smaller families who report they are "not happy." Clearly it is not money or material possessions that make us happy. So what does?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied dozens of human activities to see what made Americans happy. He found that volunteer work of all kinds generated "high levels of joy, exceeded only by dancing." Why volunteer work? The most common answer is that "you make new friends" and "it gets me out of myself." For others it was "doing something meaningful," and "building a sense of community." In human society, relationships trump money.
In his book "Bowling Alone—The Collapse and Revival of the American Community" (Simon & Schuster, $16), Robert D. Putnam notes that as our incomes have climbed, our civic participation has dramatically decreased. This decrease takes the form of lower attendance in churches, civic groups and volunteer organizations as well as involvement in local government.
Putnam notes, "Each generation ... since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than their immediate predecessor." People born before 1945 and after 1964 both see family, friends and co-workers as providing a sense of belonging. However, these two generations disagree that neighbors, churches, local communities, and organizations provide a sense of community. The fabric of communities is woven by volunteers and recently that fabric has begun to unravel.
To build your happiness in a sagging economy:
1. Volunteer: Look for ways to build your local economy by adding a few volunteer hours in the local food pantry, ambulance corps, children's clubs and civic and cultural organizations. You will improve your health and the well-being of your community.
2. Eliminate or shorten your commute by working from home or working in the community where you live. Sink roots into your community and commit to stay there. We have become a community of transients, with 20 percent of our community moving each year (that's one in five families). This is destabilizing our society.
3. Turn off the electronics. Putnam blames 25 percent of the loss of community on the isolation caused by television, computers and other electronic distractions. Studies show that Americans today are more likely to fill their evenings with television rather than a town board meeting. Unplug from reality shows and plug into your local reality.
4. Teach your children to value community. Putnam credits generational change—the slow, steady and inevitable replacement of the civically minded generation by their less-involved children and grandchildren for 50 percent of the decline in our civic lives.
5. Spend more time and money in your local community. Studies have shown shoppers at farmers' markets engage in 10 times as many conversations as do consumers shopping at large retailers.