Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why All of the Unhappiness?

A few months ago I saw a movie at the theater entitled, “The Ultimate Gift,” and it got me to thinking about happiness. Well, actually it got me to thinking about all of the unhappiness I see around me.

Then, last week, along came the results of study done to measure how “happy” Americans are these days. The headline on this story (from Reuters Life) says it all: “Americans less happy today than 30 years ago according to study.”

Here are highlights from that story:

Americans are less happy today than they were 30 years ago thanks to longer working hours and a deterioration in the quality of their relationships with friends and neighbors, according to an Italian study.

Researchers presenting their work at a conference on "policies for happiness" at Italy's Siena University honed in on two major forces that boost happiness-- higher income and better social relationships …

And while the average American paycheck had risen over the past 30 years, its happiness-boosting benefits were more than offset by a drop in the quality of relationships over the period. …

"The main cause is a decline in the so-called social capital -- increased loneliness, increased perception of others as untrustworthy and unfair," said Stefano Carolina, one of the authors of the study. "Social contacts have worsened, people have less and less relationships among neighbors, relatives and friends." …

He and two other Italian researchers looked at data from 1975 to 2004 collected by the annual General Social Surveys that monitors change in U.S. society through interviews with thousands of Americans. …

"The increase in hours worked by Americans over the last 30 years has heavily affected their happiness because people who are more absorbed by work have less time and energy for relationships," said Bartolini.

The results of this study are no surprise to me. It seems obvious: just look at the drastic rise in medical treatments for depression nowadays! The same is true in Britain. Although real incomes have tripled since the 1950s, the number of people who described themselves as "very happy" has dropped dramatically from 57 to 36 percent.

While there are many reasons why unhappiness is on the rise, people on both sides of the Atlantic expect government to do something about it. The same poll that measured Brits' unhappiness found that 80 percent of them believed that the "government's prime objective should be the 'greatest happiness.' "

One of my favorite commentators, Chuck Colson, recently explained it this way:

We have succumbed to the illusion that every problem has a political solution. All that's needed is the right combination of expertise and political will. Of course, the idea that government can promote or create happiness is absurd on its face: a New Scientist survey found that Nigerians and Mexicans, whose countries aren't known for stellar governance, are the happiest people in the world.

I suspect this trend toward being unhappy will continue until people realize that neither wealth nor government can ever be the source of true happiness.


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