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).
Here, 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.
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.
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