Why are Americans so unhappy? 

Why are Americans so unhappy?  | The Hill

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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy testifies.
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U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing about youth mental health on Capitol Hill on Feb. 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C. According to a recent report from the Surgeon General’s office, rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased since the pandemic began.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” says Marcellus in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” suggesting moral and political decay in a ghostly time. 

America is in a period of internal dissonance — not quite decay but something akin to it. 

We don’t feel like a happy country. And, in fact, on the list of the happiest nations, generated by Gallup each year, America is 23rd this year, behind the United Arab Emirates, and we have dropped from last year’s place of 15th. If you are looking for a happy country, go to Finland, which tops the list along with most of the Nordic countries. 

Most surprising about the data on happiness is that the most unhappy demographic is people under 30, which is ironic given their unique understanding of, and access to, new media.  

But no matter which age bracket you look at, people are feeling depressed. 

Overall, Americans feel broke and brokenhearted even with overall good national news on inflation.  

Financial stress is one reason so many Americans want to move to another country. In a recent poll by Monmouth University, one-third of respondents said they would like to live in a different nation — a figure that stood at 10 percent 50 years ago. (Not many people had an exact destination in mind.) 

Other factors contribute to unhappiness, but the common issue is generalized worry about where America is going on almost every issue from education to politics, according to the most recent Gallup polling data.

And the discontentment leads to a belief that America is not well respected overseas. Americans’ satisfaction with our global position is at its lowest since 2017 — also according to Gallup. 

Unhappiness is both a political state and a mental health crisis, although we rarely see them as interrelated. 

Anxiety affects 1 in 5 adults

More than 20 percent of teens have seriously considered suicide. 

Experts on mental health point to social media as one reason for social disconnectedness. 

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business and co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind,” reminds us that with each step we’ve taken on the social media road, we have eroded confidence in ourselves. 

“The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” Haidt wrote in The Atlantic. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”  

But politics also play into stress. This period of national estrangement was reflected in the 2016 election where voters seem so far apart. Neither party could understand the other. But most journalists and polling experts missed the chasm and were taken aback by the popularity of Donald Trump and his win over Hillary Clinton. 

In his book, “On the Road in Trump’s America,” journalist Daniel Allott traveled the country after the election and discovered that many voters in the middle of the country felt left behind, not listened to, misunderstood and their vote was an expression of that discontentment. 

Then add the 2019 COVID pandemic to the mix, and it makes sense that people still feel disconnected from mainstream life.  

The detachment from one another is a national epidemic according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, who says that “Disconnection fundamentally affects our mental, physical, and societal health. In fact, loneliness and isolation increase the risk for individuals to develop mental health challenges in their lives, and lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.”  

So, what is the solution? 

For one, we have to start listening to each other — “generous listening” as it was explained at this year’s World Economic Forum. On the subject of work, the consensus of the annual meeting was that “today’s employees continue to feel ambivalent, cynical and disempowered.” 

Second, we have to return to a spirit of openness and positivity — if for no other reason than for our health and well-being. 

A recent study by Johns Hopkins Medicine found that “People with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.” 

According to the Mayo Clinic, “When your state of mind is generally optimistic, you’re better able to handle everyday stress in a more constructive way. That ability may contribute to the widely observed health benefits of positive thinking.” 

Third, we need an upgrade in political dialogue in the coming campaign season to put value on the perspectives of others even those with whom we disagree. Without some basic civility, we are truly in danger of driving ourselves further apart to a “rotten” state. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs and is senior fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.


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