Not Merely Pursuing Happiness, Americans Are Good at Catching It

Is everybody happy? Almost everybody. In the latest of Gallup’s annual surveys on the matter, 55 percent of adults said they’re “very happy” and 40 percent rated themselves “fairly happy.” Just 4 percent said they’re “not too happy.” Nor is this cheery batch of numbers an anomaly. Apart from the survey conducted shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the “very happy” score hasn’t dipped below 40 percent in nearly 50 years.

In a new book called The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook notes that the percentage of people saying they’re happy isn’t higher now than it was in the 1950s, despite the steep rise in real income since then. True enough, but since nearly everyone was happy in the ’50s, there was little room for the percentage to increase. (In Gallup’s 1956 poll, 53 percent of respondents said they were very happy and 42 percent said they were fairly happy.) If anything, we should be impressed that the incidence of happiness hasn’t declined from its very high levels of a half-century ago. Consider, for instance, the fact that the stoic souls who grew up in the Depression have been largely replaced in the poll sample by the fed-on-demand baby boomers, who were raised to regard happiness as their due. In the same period, we’ve also seen life expectancy rise, partly because people have traded off pleasurable bad habits to get more years of life. Reviewing the available data, a recent article in the Journal of Happiness Studies (really!) tentatively identified a positive correlation between happiness and some hedonistic behaviors. Other things being equal, then, Americans’ temperance should be reflected in the data as a reduction in happiness. (“I’m still alive, but only because I’ve given up smoking, drinking and running around with hat-check girls!”) Instead, Gallup says “Americans’ subjective sense of well-being is as high today as at any time in the history of these Gallup trends.”

Social scientists speak of a “hedonic treadmill,” with people spending their bigger incomes just to keep pace with their bigger appetites. If higher standards of happiness are being met, though, one could argue that the sum total of happiness has increased. Still, Gallup’s numbers support the theory that greater income doesn’t yield greater happiness once a person gets beyond a threshold of comfortable subsistence. Among respondents whose household income is less than $30,000, 44 percent said they’re very happy. The figure jumps to 59 percent for people in the $30,000-$49,999 bracket. From there, though, it falls a bit (to 55 percent) for the $50,000-$75,000 cohort before rising modestly (to 60 percent) for those whose income tops $75,000.