The Joy of Life

How’s Our Pursuit of Happiness Coming Along?

It’s hard to doubt that we’re living in challenging times. If you need evidence, take a look at data on happiness. Since 1972, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago has been tracking the happiness of Americans. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, we’ve hit an all-time low. In fact, only 14 percent of Americans say they’re very happy.

What’s more, it turns out that we’re learning the hard way that money doesn’t buy happiness. That’s because Americans were reporting an all-time high in satisfaction with family finances. That’s right. When these data were collected in May, fully 80 percent of people surveyed said they were satisfied with their family’s financial situation. Of course, that was when everyone was getting pandemic relief checks from the government.

Stressed? That Depends

We hear and read much about how stressful this pandemic has been. But if you look at data from the NORC, the stress is very uneven. Compare the stress reactions to what people felt after 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination, and you can see that this is different. Many fewer people report feeling dazed or numb. Fewer say they’ve cried.

Compared to those other tragedies, about the same numbers – roughly half of Americans – say they’ve had trouble sleeping. One reaction does stand out as being much more common, though. More than a quarter of us have felt like getting drunk. In the prior tragedies, those numbers were only four to seven percent.

The most telling observation is how uneven the stress has been. For people who live where the deaths have been highest, reports of loneliness and unhappiness have been the greatest. When people have been exposed to the virus or someone who might have had it, they are decidedly more stressed. That doubles the odds they are having trouble coping with everything.

Such is the effect of exposure to the problem. No exposure means many fewer issues with mental health and happiness.

Pursuing Happiness

Call us unrealistic, but this is where we will insist that the pursuit of happiness is never futile. We see challenges all around – misogyny, racism, and anti-democracy impulses come to mind. And yet those challenges seem to spur people toward constructive action. More people than ever are taking up the call to reject these negative forces in our lives. Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have grown stronger in the face of challenging times.

On a personal level, some people are responding to life changes brought by COVID with a deeper investment in personal relationships and self-care. Attention to healthy nutrition and physical activity can pay dividends in health. Our own blood pressure is down with less travel and more self-care.

These are trying times. Happiness is at a low ebb for some good reasons. Thus there is no better time to nurture happiness for ourselves and the people we love.

Click here for the NORC report on happiness amid the pandemic and here for an assessment from Dana Milbank. For insight on how some people are thriving in these times, click here. Finally, for ideas on pursuing happiness as we head into a new season of uncertainty, click here.

The Joy of Life, painting by Henri Matisse / WikiArt

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September 19, 2020