No wonder that a poll conducted by the Associated Press and Yahoo News in November found that although 77 percent of Americans said they believed the country was heading in the wrong direction, 66 percent said they were personally either very happy or somewhat happy. Only 18 percent said they were unhappy.
I have much more direct interaction with my local government — that of the District of Columbia — than I do with the feds. And you know what? I have loathed City Hall from the time I moved here on Marion Barry’s watch to today. And yet these have been the best years of my life. I grew up in crime-ridden, high-tax, drug-addled, blackout-plagued New York City, when every day seemed to bring the place closer to collapse. Getting mugged every now and then was simply the price you paid for walking to school. And yet I look back on my childhood and smile.
The burgeoning field of “happiness studies” tells us that happiness is a peculiar state of mind, surprisingly immune to government or economic manipulation. USC economist Richard Easterlin first observed this more than 30 years ago. In 1947, 42 percent of Americans told a pollster they were very happy. In 1970, despite the fact that the average American family was 60 percent richer, the share of Americans reporting they were very happy had ticked up only slightly to 43 percent.
Today, a whopping 86 percent of Americans report feeling satisfied with their jobs, according to the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey. Nearly two-thirds, a Harris Poll found, expect their life to improve in the next five years, while only 7 percent expect it to worsen. The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that Americans have one of the highest rates of personal satisfaction in the world.
That’s not exactly the picture one gets from listening to John Edwards deliver another “Two Americas” stemwinder.
Political junkies — me included — constantly wag their fingers at “normal Americans” for not being more engaged. There’s merit to the complaint; but there’s also truth to the notion that Americans understand that the most important stuff lies elsewhere. That the holiday season crushes the political season is a sign Americans have their priorities in the right place.