In the 20th century a common stereotype of Americans was that they were a cheerful lot – perhaps too booming cheerful for Europeans who had to endure “have-a-nice-day!” tourists. An interesting article by a scholar of Bulgarian origin identifies a particular period in American history when “good cheer” first became an important value here, displacing an earlier, more dour phase. It appears that, now, in the 21st century, our modern cheeriness is in recession — and unequally so.
Christina Kotchemidova argues in a 2005 article that before the early 1800s, middle-class Americans emphasized seriousness in their demeanor, writings, and child-rearing. “American diarists of the seventeenth century consistently portrayed themselves as doleful.” As I noted in an earlier blog post, there was a time when middle-class Americans, especially women, cultivated feelings of melancholy as markers of their sensitive, refined spirits.
Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, claimed that the pursuit of (material) happiness generated a characteristic American unhappiness. In the 1830s he wrote that America’s promise of universal success bred sadness. “In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures . . . forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. . . .” New York minister Henry Bellows made a similar observation: “All strangers who come among us remark the excessive anxiety written in the American countenance.” No matter how much they got, Americans, such observers thought, always felt that they come up short.
But, over the course of the 19th century, Kotchemidova contends, middle-class Americans consciously worked on their cheerfulness, or at least on having a cheerful front. Good spirits were not an expression of simple-mindedness, but of optimism, confidence, and egalitarianism. By the 20th century, cheerfulness was almost a social requirement and a theme in our commercial culture. Marriage guides expected women to be always upbeat; businessmen found profit in being nice to customers; how-to-succeed manuals stressed being cheery as a way to get a job and sell a product. Eventually, the fashionable melancholy of, say, the early 19th century came to be seen in the late 20th century as pathological depression.
A growing legion of scholars is now studying what kinds of people say they are “happy” and why (see this post). Where do Americans rank today in cheeriness? Crossnational comparisons are tricky, because of language and cultural variations. In some cultures, declaring that “Ev’rything’s goin’ my way” — to quote the classic musical, “Oklahoma!” — is considered impolite boasting. Still, some comparisons are possible. Recent global surveys find that about 34% of Americans describe themselves as “very happy,” which is about average for the affluent western nations. The British were high at about 51% and the Spanish low at 14%. In a comprehensive analysis of many international surveys, two economists (pdf) found that the average happiness response of Americans was just about what one would expect given Americans’ standard of living – neither unexpectedly high nor low. Americans are in many ways “exceptional,” but not, at least, in the happiness they claim.
Uncheery, Unequal Trends
Contemporary trends in the United States suggest that, like economic inequality, happiness inequality has increased.
In the figure below, I show the trend in the percentage of Americans, from 1973 through 2010, who told the General Social Survey (the best tracker we have of Americans’ feelings) that they were “very happy.” (This is a quick-and-simple look at the data. More sophisticated analyses exist, such as this pdf and this.) I chart only 30-to-60 year-olds in order to simplify the historical comparisons – to separate out the turmoil of youth, the health issues of the elderly, and the tendency of people to report more happiness as they age. I also split the data by level of education. It matters.
The percentages of Americans who reported themselves “very happy” bounced up and down over the years, but the general trend for college graduates was no trend. For those who had not graduated college, however, the 1970s were a decade of declining happiness and so have been the 2000s — a sad trend. (For the statistically minded, I note that the percentage of 30-60 year-olds who were graduates rose from about 10 to about 30 percent. That explains only part of the divergence.)
The history of American cheeriness is in part a matter of cultural fashion, as Kotchemidova suggests. It is also a matter of responding to real events. In the current era, Americans’ cheer is limited by harsher circumstances, especially for those facing the harshest circumstances.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on October 28, 2011.)