Is Happiness a Choice?


Only 14 percent of Americans are happy right now.* This is a new low, the lowest it's been in 50 years. We're living in a challenging context: for individuals, community, and companies.

The community context is interesting, because it does impact the level of satisfaction in life for people. I was looking at another report that polled a sample about half the respondents for the U.S. and the numbers are not as low.**

As the report says (slide 6):

In most European countries satisfaction has increased compared to the beginning of the crisis. Australia and Hong Kong see the largest increase in satisfaction with life, while in the US, satisfaction has dropped considerably

Americans are also the most concerned with personal financial security since the beginning of the crisis. They've experienced the most significant drop in both government and employer perceived help. Perceived level of employment security is also fairly low.

Higher stress, eating less healthy and exercising less create a domino-effect for Americans who do plan to get back on track. The lack of social safety nets and cost of health care in the U.S. alone are reasons why people feel more anxious here.

Culture's influence on perception

While human resilience anywhere in the world remains the meta-context, there's a bigger context at play that drives how we perceive things as individuals: culture.

Culture is a living thing. It's constantly storing energy from the rituals, traditions, history and ways of doing things and making decisions. It includes what and how you acquire and maintain knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law and other capabilities. 

There are specific slices of culture where people cultivate common interests and achieve shared goals: communities. I have no idea which communities each survey on happiness and satisfaction polled. But my hunch from experience tells me that that's the difference.

Communities with higher levels of social cohesion fare better in moments of disruption. A group of researchers found# that social capital plays a powerful role in influencing disaster and resilience outcomes. They used publicly available data to measure bonding, bridging, and linking in the U.S.

You will notice from the map that social capital is highest in smaller American communities. You can see the disparity with Europe where community and social bonding are still much higher based on the tested assumptions that drive choice.

Culture is transmitted by values

People behave in a manner that signals which things are important to them. In the U.S. freedom, mobility, safety and efficiency are very important. Right now, they're getting frustrated on the path to doing other things that are important like competing.

The sky's the limit, but there's a serious limitation on the amount of hard work one can do to achieve success with no equality, also a value. Individuality is the one value that is getting severely tested.

Compare that with some of the European values. Each country accentuates some over others, but by and large, tradition, family and friendship, and a broader sense of social life are quite important. Leisure and and sensuality are also values.

That's likely why Italians are leading on the list of Europeans planning to treat themselves and their family to a holiday in their own country. France and Spain follow closely. They have many gorgeous destinations to choose from and a chance to enjoy them. Global travel will take a while to resume.

All happy countries are different

Compared to early 2020, people in France, Italy, Spain, and China are starting to show a positive level of satisfaction with life. Likely as a result of the easing of lockdowns, in Italy and Spain the use of certain social media sites is decreasing.

While people in all countries became miserable for the same reasons, what makes them happy is different in each.

The World Happiness Report ranks national happiness for 156 countries. Data is based on respondent ratings of their own lives and a correlation with various life factors.  As of March 2020, Finland was ranked the happiest country in the world three times in a row.

If you're curious, the researchers look at how the factors that make Nordic countries happier are interlinked on pages 179-183. In 2019, the U.S. (19) was ahead of France (24), Spain (30) and Italy (36)#. Yet, change the context, frustrate the attitudes and behaviors and you have different results.

While all miserable places are the same, all happy places are different. That difference is culture. Because it drives perception through values and gives people the power to sustain lives with joy.
Psychologists describe happiness as the joy of moving towards your potential and how that movement can fuel happiness. As a source of energy and strength, culture helps you see people like you as example. Community is a place where where people can see how change happens. 
All happy places are different because of culture. Take culture seriously and embed it in the way you operate, and you can make a positive difference.
[image from Happy, a documentary trailer]

See also why most of our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging

*May 21-29 survey of 2,279 adults with funding from the National Science Foundation.
**May 26-28 survey of 1,055 adults TWP companies Toluna, Harris Interactive and KuRunData ongoing study.


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