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Why Americans Aren’t As Happy And Don’t Like to Work As Hard

In Coming Apart I talk a lot about the American Project and what I had in mind by that is the idea that human beings could be left alone to live their lives as they see fit with actually very few rules that they had to follow except criminal law.

In trying to talk systematically about why the American Project is deteriorating, I tried to figure out what are the measures that are really important.  And I went back to the founders because the founders were very explicit that the Constitution wouldn’t work unless there were certain qualities already in the people.  And they’ve listed a lot of different things but there were four that all of the major founders – Madison, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton – agreed on.  

One of those is what they called industry – we would say industriousness.  But it’s not just working hard, it’s the whole notion that is so important in America of going out there, working to make a better life, working long hours if necessary, having a better life for your children, rising in the world which was evident long before the Constitution.  

We now have a new lower class in this country. It doesn’t work as hard as it used to and is on welfare more than it used to be and isn’t married and so forth. You could say “So what? We’re a rich country. We can afford to support them.” Yeah, financially we can. My problem is not how much it costs to care for the new lower class. It is that the new lower class is not nearly as happy as the working class used to be. You can put this in terms of just numbers. The General Social Survey which is the most widely used attitudinal database in the United States collected by an outfit at the University of Chicago, asked this question of people: Are you extremely happy, sort of happy or not happy at all – answers like that.  

In a sense you don’t know exactly what people have in mind when they say they’re happy. But, in fact, statistically you can demonstrate that when they say they are extremely happy they are reflecting a real sense of personal wellbeing.  And when they say sort of happy they’re reflecting a real deficit. The percentage of people in the working class who say they are happy has been declining very steadily and very significantly over the last 30-40 years. It’s no surprise because the correlates of saying that you are very happy are pretty straightforward and they don’t have a whole lot to do with money. They have to do with whether you have work that you find satisfying. That’s a very important predictor.  

Are you married? That’s a very important predictor. Not are you happily married but are you married at all. This is not to say that single people can’t be happy. It is to say that by and large people who are engaged in marriage tend to be happier than people who aren’t.  And the same thing goes with being engaged within a community. People who have a high degree of social trust in the people around them. Their neighbors are happier than those who aren’t.  And it’s also true for religiosity.  People who are engaged in their churches, synagogues tend to be more satisfied with life than people who aren’t.  So when you say that you have a new lower class that is characterized by dropping away from marriage, work, religiosity, community, you are really saying the people are dropping away from the institutions through which human beings pursue happiness. That is a big deal.


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