By most ordinary standards we are living in a prosperous age: stock indexes have soared in the past year: DJIA +19%, S&P 500 +20.4%, NASDAQ +26%, and Russell 2000 +9%. More than this, U.S. GDP expanded at an average of 3.0% in recent quarters, and the domestic unemployment rate is reportedly at a 17-year low. In the not-distant past these citations would have been recounted in any number of news reports and year-end columns as proof of good policies, good management, etc.
These numerical details might get some positive treatment in a discussion with your financial advisor, but you will not gain much ground this New Year’s Eve if you try to convince your fellow revelers that now we have arrived in the good times everyone hopes for.
In those conversations, you will be offered many examples of what makes our present time so unpleasant or intolerable. Such are the manners of our age that very few people have the self-composure or forbearance to avoid recounting their personal trials in public, listing all the recognizable villains and unbearable circumstances that are the source of their misery. The president. His opponents. Income tax laws. Insurance coverage. All these things and more have pushed us to the brink of disaster. Hope is running out for our future. How much worse can things get for us, we all may wonder.
I don’t hold myself apart from the pessimism that is so common today, yet a year-end column about how terrible are the times we live in is not edifying – and by the economic record it’s not accurate. This may be the point: economic success does not bring happiness.
This is a truism that, for most of the past half century, we have worked to disprove. Fifty years ago, our country was engaged in civil strife and conventional war, and learning to carry on through an ideological stand-off that threatened global cataclysm at any moment. We endured, and we prospered. Surely, we must realize that things are better now, right?
From a survey of 43,000 people in 38 countries, Pew Research Center found that current economic conditions are critical to how positively or negatively individuals assess the past and present. So, 88% of Vietnamese agree that life is better now than in 1967, as might be expected. Other countries where economic progress has been significant in recent years also rank high on the list: 69% of Indians, 68% of South Koreans, and 65% of Japanese, Germans, and Turks, agree that their lives are better now than 50 years ago.
But among our fellow Americans just 37% agree that our lives are better now than 50 years ago, and 41% hold the view that our lives are worse than at that time. The in-between view is that our lives are “about the same” as they were in 1967— which is an option for those who are too indecisive or too indifferent to the subject.
But it’s not a position that can be based on facts, because all the evidence of economic development is on the positive side. More of us are wealthier, more socially mobile, better educated, and living longer than we were 50 years ago.
The researchers also found economics are not the sole factor shaping happiness: younger and more educated individuals are more likely to give a positive assessment of life, and current political situations in individual countries can shape opinions.
I remain convinced that life is good and getting better, but the poll is documenting how becoming richer and smarter has not made us more civil or considerate of each other. It has not eliminated vice and venality, or the thrill of seeing our nemeses brought down. The effects of prosperity have not made us better people, and now we know that we need something more to make us happy. Having forsaken the courtesy and self-discipline that once ensured civility in our society, we may be right to wonder, how did it all go wrong?