Happiness is a sappy word and a flimsy concept more fleeting than contentment, several octaves lower than joy. But happiness is what pollsters test and economists track, however clumsily, so we're stuck with it as the medium for measuring our mood. Not surprisingly, that mood has bounced around over the years, with the general sense of well-being hitting its lowest points in 1973, 1982, 1992 and 2001, all recession years. So why is it that at least some aspects of the Great Recession of 2009 appear to have made people feel better?
In January 2008, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index was launched. It was designed to work like a Dow Jones average of attitude. At least 1,000 people are surveyed daily, 350 days a year. (You can see how happy people are broken down by congressional district; Utah turns out to be the merriest state, West Virginia the glummest.) When the markets tanked last fall, happiness did too, and anyone who has lost his or her job, house or health care is probably still in a world of pain. But here's the funny thing: by this past summer, overall well-being was higher than it was in the summer of 2008, before the Apocalypse. In fact, the latest report finds America's cheeriness at an all-time high. An August report from the Pepsi Optimism Project (POP) positively fizzed: Americans are more optimistic now than a year ago about their well-being (88% vs. 84%); health, finances, relationships and odds of finding love (70% vs. 61%). Don't trust soda-company polls? Consumer Reports confirms that we don't plan to spend much money this Christmas, but the vast majority of us 87% expect this holiday season will be as happy as or even happier than last year's. Meanwhile, the Secret Society of Happy People (which "encourages the expression of happiness and discourages parade-raining") reports traffic to its not-so-secret website has increased since the downturn.
Everyone or at least everyone who claims to be happy has some reason for finding the upside to the downturn. Mine has to do with the end of Expectation Inflation, a phenomenon that can be as corrosive to our spirits as price inflation is to our savings. Expectations are a mash-up of hope and conceit, what you've earned and what you imagine luck might hand you as a bonus for just showing up. So what did it mean that over the past generation our expectations grew so big so fast that we had effectively supersized the American Dream?
Some parts of raised expectations are plainly good. We expect to live well into our 80s because medicine keeps getting better. Many more high school students expect to go to college. In 1973, 47% of recent high school graduates attended college; last year 69% of new graduates enrolled. We expect our gadgets to get smaller and smarter, cooler and cheaper, because technology evolves exponentially, and at light speed.
But the Great Recession has also exposed our magical thinking about what constitutes a middle-class lifestyle. Flash back a generation to the house with the white picket fence. It had a black-and-white TV with an antenna, a car in the garage, a chicken in every pot and two kinds of lettuce (light green and dark green). Now the average house is more than 50% bigger, the car is twice as powerful (and there's often more than one), the TV is flat and gets 900 channels, and we expect the grocery store to have strawberries year-round and about 50 flavors of mustard. Small wonder we started charging our life-insurance premiums on our credit cards; we only expected to pay when we died.
So while optimism is the all-American anesthetic, at some point Expectation Inflation was bound to take its toll. I'm struck by how many people tell pollsters that the voluntary downshifting and downsizing of the past year have come as a kind of relief. Maybe we've lowered our standards. But we already knew that money can buy only comfort, not contentment; happiness correlates much more closely with our causes and connections than with our net worth. Americans may have less money charitable giving in current dollars dropped for the first time in 20 years in 2008 but about a million more people volunteered their time to a cause. Which makes me wonder: Is it a coincidence that eight of the 10 happiest states in the country also rank in the top 10 for volunteering?
Whatever you make of the psychology of happiness, we know something of its physics. It rises as it ricochets off other people, returning to us stronger by virtue of being released. It gets bigger when we don't care if it gets smaller; we stopped buying all the stuff we didn't need that was supposed to make us happier, and we seem to be happier for it. And who would have expected that?