The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.
Should Americans feel happier than they do? Despite the heroic efforts of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, I remain unconvinced.
As a fellow humanist, I sympathize with Prof. Pinker’s predicament. Having amassed a bushel basket of data for his magisterial new book, Enlightenment Now,1 the good professor is perplexed: why aren’t we Americans as happy as we should be, given all the wonderful things we have in our lives? (Spoiler alert: beware of those who tell you how really, really happy you should be).
In this essay, I’m focusing on Pinker’s chapter, “Happiness,” which most engaged my thinking as a psychiatrist. I hasten to add that I am in broad sympathy with Prof. Pinker’s larger aims in the book, which are founded on the belief that knowledge and reason can enhance human flourishing. What humanistically inclined psychiatrist could argue with that? And yet, I am deeply skeptical of Pinker’s implicit claim that Americans ought to be happier than they are. Indeed, I think that a failure to appreciate the legitimate sources of our nation’s current sadness and angst will only delay our emotional recovery.
Pinker gives numerous examples to support his thesis that the US suffers from an “Optimism Gap.” Since 1992, Pinker notes, homicide rates in the US have declined sharply. Maternal mortality in the US has fallen dramatically since the 1950s. And Americans, on average, have been getting richer (despite the fact, as Pinker concedes, that “the rich got richer faster than the poor and middle class got richer”). Leisure time for American men and women, on average, has increased markedly since the 1960s. And, Pinker argues, for all the hand-wringing about “right-wing backlashes” the values of Western countries, including the US, have been getting “steadily more liberal” since the 1980s.
So what’s to complain about? And yet, as Pinker vividly puts it, Americans “. . . seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp, and kvetch as much as ever. . . .” and the proportion of Americans who report being happy has held fairly steady for decades. Pinker notes that there has been a “slight decline” since 1972 in the proportion of Americans saying they are “very happy.” Actually, data from the 156-country 2018 World Happiness Report2 show that the US ranks 18th in the world—a significant drop from 14th place in 2017.
To give Prof. Pinker his due: he bolsters his arguments with (count ‘em) 75 graphs and more than 30 pages of references. If, at times, he sounds like someone from the Murky Gulch Chamber of Commerce, trumpeting the town’s many virtues, Pinker is, nevertheless, an eloquent apostle of the Enlightenment—roughly the last two-thirds of the 18th century, known for its championing of “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” Indeed, Pinker is in the direct line of progressive optimists from Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) to Barack Obama.
He reminds me, wistfully, of Ludovico Settembrini, the humanist pedagogue in Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain.3 Like Pinker, Settembrini argues passionately for (in Mann’s words) “. . . the recent progress of humanitarian ideals” and “the triumphant forcing back of epidemic disease,” contrasting the “horrors of pestilence with the feats of modern medical science.” And, like Settembrini’s noble sentiments, Prof. Pinker’s thesis is only partly convincing.
So why aren’t Americans happier?
Pinker offers a number of hypotheses, which I will not detail here, for America’s Optimism Gap. (Two examples: “People have . . . lost their comforting faith in the goodness of their institutions . . .” and “. . . the media and commentariat . . . could reflect on their own role in keeping the country’s anxiety at a boil.”) For the most part, Pinker seems to argue that if only we, misinformed Americans, would look at the facts, we would realize how truly well off we are.
And, to be sure, Americans have many blessings for which to be grateful. But while Pinker is quick to point out how our biases can distort our perception of how good things are, he seems unaware of his own selective presentation and interpretation of the evidence. Pinker’s biases are evident in at least 3 areas that impinge on mental health issues.
1. Pinker rightly debunks the myth that “suicide has been steadily rising and has now reached historically high . . . or epidemic proportions.” Indeed, data from the Centers for Disease Control show that, for the US population as a whole, rates of completed suicide in the US (all ages) were about the same in 2010 as they were in 1960 and 1980 (12.1, 12.5, and 12.2 per 100,000, respectively).4 However, over the past 15 years, the total US suicide rate has increased 24% from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000—a statistic Pinker does not cite.
While Pinker acknowledges that “suicide rates rise sharply during adolescence,” he doesn’t acknowledge that suicide among US teens and young adults has nearly tripled since the 1940s.5 Furthermore, between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate among adolescents (aged 10-14) nearly doubled, with most of the increase occurring after 2007, and with the sharpest rise occurring in girls.6
Dr Pies is Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times, and a Professor in the psychiatry departments of SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.
1. Pinker S: Enlightenment Now. New York, Viking; 2018.
2. Helliwell JF, Layard R, Sachs JD, eds. World Happiness Report 2018. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network; 2018.
3 Mann T. The Magic Mountain. New York: Vintage; 1996.
4 National Institute of Mental Health. Suicide Is the Leading Cause of Death in the United States. 2018.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide Among Youth. 2018.
6. Tavernise S. Young adolescents as likely to die from suicide as from traffic accidents. The New York Times. 2016.
7. Twenge JM, Gentile B, DeWall CN, et al. Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010;30:145-154.
8. Patel V, Burns JK, Dhingra M, et al. Income inequality and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the association and a scoping review of mechanisms. World Psychiatry. 2018;17:76-89.
9. Khazan O. How loneliness begets loneliness. The Atlantic. 2017.
10. Holt-Lunstad J, Robles TF, Sbarra DA. Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States. Am Psychol. 2017;72:517-530.
11. Ong AD, Uchino BN, Wethington E. Loneliness and health in older adults: a mini-review and synthesis. Gerontol. 2016;62:443-449.
12 Sachs JD. America’s Health Crisis and the Easterlin Paradox. World Happiness Report 2018.
13 Brooks D. The death of idealism. The New York Times. 2016.
14. Pies R. Don’t Worry—Nothing Will Turn Out Alright! CreateSpace; 2017.