Americans Unhappier—and Happier—Than Ever

Fewer people are very happy and more are not too happy than any time in a longstanding survey.

A weird story from the Associated Press. Or, at least, a weird interpretation.

The headline: “Poll: Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years.”

It’s been a rough year for the American psyche. Folks in the U.S. are more unhappy today than they’ve been in nearly 50 years.

This bold — yet unsurprising — conclusion comes from the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. It finds that just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy, down from 31% who said the same in 2018. That year, 23% said they’d often or sometimes felt isolated in recent weeks. Now, 50% say that.

Well, yeah. That’s literally what social distancing is.

The survey, conducted in late May, draws on nearly a half-century of research from the General Social Survey, which has collected data on American attitudes and behaviors at least every other year since 1972. No less than 29% of Americans have ever called themselves very happy in that survey.

How sad.

So, I get where the headline comes from.

But, from the headline and description, you’d get this impression:

Very-happiness has plummeted while not-too-happiness has spiked. And, indeed, more people are not-too-happy than very happy.

But the results actually look like this:

In the fifty years surveyed, the majority of Americans have been pretty happy. The only exception was 1974—in the midst of the post-Vietnam hangover, Watergate, and stagflation—when only 49 percent were pretty happy. And, looking at the chart with the full range of responses included, you immediately see that, not only is “pretty happy” by far the biggest response but pretty-happiness is actually at an all-time high. The interactive version shows it at 62 percent, breaking the previous record of 60 percent set in 1985.

Focusing on the not-too-happies—a mere 23 percent of respondents—seems a weird interpretation of the survey when nearly triple that number are pretty happy.

The caveat is that it’s certainly conceivable that “not-too-happy” people are at higher risk for suicide and other issues. But the story doesn’t make that claim, much less any support for it.

FILED UNDER: Health, Public Opinion Polls
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kit says:

    Focusing on the not-too-happies—a mere 23 percent of respondents—seems a weird interpretation of the survey when nearly double that number are pretty happy.

    Yeah, that’s what I always say about the unemployment reports…

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Focusing on the not-too-happies—a mere 23 percent of respondents—seems a weird interpretation of the survey

    No weirder than focusing on salt of the earth mid-western diner customers.

    6
  3. James Joyner says:

    @Kit:

    the unemployment reports…

    But “employment” is presented as a binary variable. Employed/unemployed are the only options (even though reality is much more complicated). Because an increase in unemployment is matched by an equal drop in employment, we focus on the former.

    Here, we have three possible answers of which “Pretty happy” has always been the predominant answer. That the others are “Very happy” and “Not so happy” is itself problematic (they’re not equal extremes) but it’s at least longitudinally consistent.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    No weirder than focusing on salt of the earth mid-western diner customers.

    It makes some sense if your theory of the case is that they’re the key to an election outcome. But it’s certainly not a useful way to describe the attitudes of the nation as a whole.

    1
  5. Michael Petry says:

    Aren’t “pretty happy” more than double rather than almost double? 62/23 is almost triple, right?

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: And just to add my pet peeve to this: denigrating the “coastal elites”. More than half the population live in states that make up the East and west coasts. Two thirds if you include the Gulf Coast, including a number of battle ground states. What percent of the population lives in small midwestern towns? The bulk of the population in the Midwest lives in large towns and cities and the battleground there is the suburbs – as it is everywhere else.

    4
  7. Kit says:

    @James Joyner:

    Because an increase in unemployment is matched by an equal drop in employment, we focus on the former.

    No, we focus on the change.

    4
  8. Kathy says:

    Keep in mind this is all self-reported, largely anecdotal, dependent on current mood, and completely oblivious to the law of conservation of merriment.

    5
  9. Teve says:

    @MarkedMan: I have been to all 48 contiguous states and have driven across the country several times. And what I’ve told people is that there’s a shit ton of people on the East Coast, there’s a shit ton of people on the West Coast, and in between it’s just thousands of miles of corn and soybeans and rocks.

    8
  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Teve: I’m from Chicago originally, and so am at least familiar with the geography of the midwest. When I told people in China that there were many, many private farms that were 640 acres or 2.5 square kilometers with one house at the edge, probably with only 2-3 people living in it, I’m pretty sure they thought I was exaggerating. I didn’t even attempt to tell them about cattle ranches, which can be so big they use helicopters to find strays.

    3
  11. CSK says:

    When I see articles and surveys like this, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s remark about never having encountered a happy person with an I.Q. of 120 or over.

    6
  12. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    That can’t possibly be the problem in the nation that elected Trump.

    3
  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    @CSK: I know quite a few people with IQs like that who are happy. I think that’s Hemingway expanding his own condition (I accept that he was unhappy and probably had some good reasons for it) to encompass the world, which is something that depressed people do a lot.

    2
  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    If one of your classes had a 20% decline in people getting A’s, a 10% increase in people getting D’s, and a 10% increase in people getting C’s, would you characterize that class’s academic achievement as being at an all time high?

    3
  15. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    I wonder how many high I.Q. folks voted for Trump. Not many, I should think. Well, he did say that he loved the poorly educated. I grant you that “poorly educated” is not synonymous with “stupid.”

    But the whole question of smart people being less happy than not-smart people interests me. I don’t, of course, believe that it’s 100% true; I know many quite intelligent people who appear reasonably happy. On the other hand, James Gould Cozzens once responded to Henry David Thoreau’s “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” by tartly pointing out that of course they don’t because they’re too goddam stupid. Cozzens had a point. When you’re too dumb to think about anything but your next meal or your next f*ck, of course you’re going to be happier than someone who worries constantly about the state of the world.

    1
  16. CSK says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    As do I. I was typing my reply to Kathy, and didn’t see your response till I had posted that comment. Hemingway, as we all know, suffered from profound depression that finally caused his suicide–as it did with his granddaughter Margaux.

    1
  17. Stormy Dragon says:

    Can Intelligence Buy You Happiness?

    tl;dr: normalizing for socioeconomic status, intelligence has no effect on happiness, however more intelligent people tend to have better socioeconomic status so if you look purely at intelligence, more intelligent people are happier

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    My Spiritual Advisors never let me down…
    Happy Happy Joy Joy

  19. Mister Bluster says:

    My Spiritual Advisors never let me down…
    Happy Happy Joy Joy

  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    Seriously, the more I look at this post, the more “WTF” I get.

    Dr. Joyner is basically ignoring everything but the pretty happy line, purely because it’s the highest line on the graph. After all the condescending lectures about academics being more subtle than us stupid normies, this is what passes for an academic analysis?

    I hope he puts more effort into his actual work product, because this is lazy bullshit.

    4
  21. Mister Bluster says:

    Post snagged by spam filter was my error.

  22. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    I wonder how many high I.Q. folks voted for Trump.

    First we set aside my earlier joke.

    Next, I look at intelligence as capacity rather than an always-on trait. You must choose to use reason. Here’s an analogy: a 2-ton truck can carry more stuff than a 1-ton truck, but if the former is empty and the latter fully loaded, then the latter is carrying more cargo regardless of their respective capacities.

    Rationally, racism and white supremacy make no sense. emotionally they may. So what does a high IQ but prejudiced person choose to do at the voting both?

    You also must choose how to use reason. It can be used to rationalize a bad choice, such as voting for Trump, rather than for arriving at a good choice.

    So it’s not that clear-cut (almost as if it happened in real life, eh?).

    2
  23. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kathy: Intelligence as capacity – now that’s brilliant. I’m convinced that Orly Taitz, for instance, is extremely intelligent, but she’s decided to use that intelligence to carry around a monstrous load of fertilizer.

    2
  24. Mister Bluster says:

    I am loath to criticize any anaylsis of Happiness by someone named JOYner!

    4
  25. Mu Yixiao says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I’m from Chicago originally, and so am at least familiar with the geography of the midwest. When I told people in China that there were many, many private farms that were 640 acres or 2.5 square kilometers with one house at the edge, probably with only 2-3 people living in it, I’m pretty sure they thought I was exaggerating.

    I know the feeling.

    I lived in 2 “small” cities in China. One is the size of Milwaukee, the other the size of Chicago (in population, neither stacks up in terms of “stuff to do”). I had two moments of realization:

    1) The “very small” residential block I lived in (all 6-floor walk-ups) could house my entire home town.

    2) My entire home town could fit on one subway train in Shanghai.

    1
  26. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    I think that there are fewer people in 2020 who will be able to rationalize a vote for Trump than there were in 2016.

    There were and are people who voted for Trump because as dreadful as they considered him to be, still found him preferable to the alternative. And there are people who have and will vote for Trump because they think he’s wonderful.

  27. Teve says:

    @CSK:

    I wonder how many high I.Q. folks voted for Trump. Not many, I should think. Well, he did say that he loved the poorly educated. I grant you that “poorly educated” is not synonymous with “stupid.”

    The family members I have who voted for him are dumb as shit, but I know that’s just an anecdote.

  28. Teve says:

    When someone walks into my store with Trump apparel on, nine out of ten times that person is an asshole. And most of the time it is, ‘You fucked up my smart phone, it’s your fault.’ And you find out that like they deleted their mail app or something. And you have to phrase it in a way like oh it turns out your mail app got deleted because if you suggest they had any responsibility they light you up.

    5
  29. Teve says:

    I had an elderly couple last week blame me because they didn’t read the instructions on how to activate their smartphone and it was my fault because I didn’t tell them to read the instructions that were mailed to them with the phone.

    5
  30. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    There’s nothing wrong with anecdotes, and nothing wrong with anecdotes offered as evidence. If you think about it, our legal system couldn’t exist without anecdote. What’s a court proceeding but people giving their versions (anecdotes) of an event? When you testify, you tell a story (an anecdote).

    2
  31. Mister Bluster says:

    Happiness is a Warm Gun
    John Lennon RIP
    1940-1980

  32. CSK says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Hard to believe the man would be 80 this year.

    1
  33. Sleeping Dog says:

    @CSK:

    A benefit, maybe the only one, of dying young is that you are forever remembered as being in the prime of your life.

    3
  34. Mister Bluster says:

    John Lennon, 1963: She loves you yeah yeah yeah
    John Lennon, 1968: She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane

    2
  35. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Teve:
    My former Toys R Us clerk and waiter selves feel your pain.

    3
  36. inhumans99 says:

    In the other open forum I said I would count to 10 before posting but I am about to ignore my own advice and post without putting as much thought into the following as I probably should.

    Without mentioning the name of the individual in this comment thread do you understand how odd it is that you feel that need to pummel the proprietor of this site over his interpretation of a story about happiness being different than yours? You are turning a mole hill into a mountain, there will be plenty of times when Dr. Joyner’s interpretation of a story/event/court ruling is not on the same page as your interpretation and you are making that out to be a cardinal sin of Dr. Joyner’s, which is just a bit nuts in my humble opinion.

    If you think that because his opinions of certain events going on in the world is not the same as yours that he is a horrible academic, well…you are indeed entitled to your humble opinion but based on Dr Joyner’s posts on this site and links to his published works he strikes me as a damn fine academic.

    If this site is no longer one’s cup of tea there is no need to hate-click on OTB as there are plenty of other sites one can inhabit. I enjoy lurking/posting on this blog and if this blog started to always make my blood boil I would think it is insane of me to continue to frequent the site.

    I feel like I am one-step away from getting into a flame war (which is so 1999) so I will stop here. Also, I suspect my posts will be seen as mansplaining or something to that effect so another reason for me to stop posting comments for a bit.

    10
  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Here, we have three possible answers of which “Pretty happy” has always been the predominant answer.

    Isn’t this why one is not supposed to do polling with odd numbers of choices rather than even ones? Something about gravitation toward the center or some such thing…

    1
  38. Teve says:

    @CSK: Oh I know, I was just giving that disclaimer because if you don’t somebody will pop up with the brilliant comment that anecdotes aren’t data, which is only slightly more brilliant than telling everybody that correlation is not causation. 😀

  39. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: If my job was crunching numbers to explain academic performance to either the public or the legislature, yes, I undoubtedly would do that. 😉 😛

  40. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    Yeah. I said what I said because I get irritated when people dismiss anecdotes as “just anecdotes” or “just anecdotal evidence.”

    And what the hell, data are just accumulated anecdotes.

    3
  41. Jax says:

    @inhumans99: I 100% agree. It’s becoming quite tiresome.

    3
  42. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: I, too, know the feeling. One year, I lived in Yong-in, which is described by some in Korea as a farming area outside of Seoul–with a population of 850,000 and 4 or 5 universities.

  43. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: Passive voice. A very important rhetorical construct. 😉

  44. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    I wonder how many high I.Q. folks voted for Trump.

    My parents have an old friend whom we’ve always regarded as intelligent. She has a biology degree. Don’t ever get her started on creationists. But in recent years she’s gone full Alex Jones conspiracy nut, and recently my parents were horrified to discover she’s a Covid-19 denier.

    My parents had another friend who was one of the smartest people I knew as a child–yet he denied the harmful effects of tobacco and ended up dying of lung cancer.

    I also once knew an extremely right-wing guy who was a member of MENSA.

    Would I describe these people as morons? Absolutely. Smart morons. Now, it is true that in general, there’s a relationship between a person’s politics and their education, with the less educated being likelier to vote Republican, a discrepancy that was very pronounced in 2016. I don’t know if there’s any data on the relationship between IQ scores and political orientation, but I’d be a little cautious there as it’s the sort of thing seized upon by the race-IQ crowd, and I’m somewhat of an IQ skeptic, anyway.

    Still, it’s important to keep in mind that some very apparently intelligent people can be incredibly foolish–which is something I think some liberals forget in their stereotyped (albeit not totally inaccurate) notions of right-wingers.

    3
  45. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:

    I wonder if the Covid-19 denier and Alex Jones aficionado–you describe her as an old friend of your parents–is not suffering from some age-related mental disability. I’ve never investigated the possibility that as people age they may be more prone to belief in conspiracy theories, but it may exist. I do know that people who feel they’ve been screwed by life tend to take refuge in such beliefs. It is probably very comforting to be able to blame your woes on some powerful external force controlling your destiny, and of course you have the company of other like-minded conspiracy believers.

    As for intelligent people who make bad choices…in terms of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs, we’re speaking of a very powerful addiction. It’s the addiction rather than the individual who’s making the decision to persist in it. Some of these people are probably quite fully aware they’re in danger of killing themselves. But…they…can’t…stop.

    2
  46. James Joyner says:

    @Kit:

    No, we focus on the change.

    Sure. But, again, it’s bimodal data. Here, we have three pieces of data. And by far the most representative number is the “pretty happy” supermajority—which increased.

    @Stormy Dragon:

    If one of your classes had a 20% decline in people getting A’s, a 10% increase in people getting D’s, and a 10% increase in people getting C’s, would you characterize that class’s academic achievement as being at an all time high?

    I’m not sure why I’d characterize a class’s academic achievement but, if I had occasion to do so, I’d base it on a mean, not trends in individual letter grades.

    1
  47. grumpy realist says:

    @Kylopod: Oh, we’ve got some pretty good examples of loopy Nobel prize winners as well….remember Shockley? Nobel Laureate for his work on the transistor? Obsessed with race and IQ. (I have a funny story I heard from a woman who was getting interviewed by Shockley for a secretarial position. During the interview, Shockley went on and on and on about how important IQ was and how brilliant he was because he had a high IQ and how anyone who he hired as a secretary had to also have a high IQ….finally he stopped and asked her: “by the way, do you know what your IQ is?” She said: “Oh yes–it’s 160.” She said the look on his face was priceless. Needless to say, she did NOT get the job….)

    (The only people who obsess about the results from IQ tests are those who are good at taking IQ tests.)

    1
  48. MarkedMan says:

    @inhumans99: Hear, hear.

    3
  49. Kathy says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Thanks. You’re too kind.

    I’ve a lot more to say about this, but also a young mountain of work piled up on my desk (and it seems to be growing most suspiciously). I’ll get back to it later.

    1
  50. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Oh, we’ve got some pretty good examples of loopy Nobel prize winners as well

    There’s a pretty lengthy history of eminent scientists who were racists. Philip Lenard won a Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect which paved the way for Einstein’s discovery–but Lenard himself raged against Einstein’s work on the grounds that he was a Jew. Lenard went on to become head of “Aryan Science” under the Nazis.

    In Martin Gardner’s classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, written in the 1950s, he observes that in the United States racism tends to be concentrated among the less educated, whereas in Germany in the years leading up to the Nazis, the reverse was the case: on the contrary, the elements of Nazi ideology were being promoted by some of the country’s top intellectuals.

    Of course there’s most definitely a tradition of scientific racism in the US lasting to the present day, and it has included some eminent scientists such as James Watson (who’s still alive).

    2
  51. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod: On the general topic of scientists and racism I’ll take this chance to plug Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man”. It’s a fast moving history of all the highly “scientific” methods of measuring various race’s and individual’s intelligence, criminality, etc. The larger point is that, even assuming that the concept of race has a meaning in these contexts (extremely unlikely) all of these methods are now considered an embarrassment, although some are used by various fortune tellers, crystal users, and Bigfoot hunters. Craniotomy (sp?) anyone? You know, the method used to show that the Italian race was closer to the ape than the Dutch, and that the Irish race couldn’t help but become criminals.

  52. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @CSK: Hemingway’s father also committed suicide.

  53. @inhumans99: You are on point. Thanks for posting.

    2
  54. CSK says:

    @SC_Birdflyte:
    Yes, I think five members of the family in four generations did so.

  55. Kit says:

    @James Joyner:

    by far the most representative number is the “pretty happy” supermajority which increased.

    * very happy: from 31% to 14% = 17% absolute drop, and a 65% relative drop
    * pretty happy: from 55% to 62% = 7% absolute rise, and a 13% relative rise
    * not too happy: from 12% to 22% = 10% absolute rise, and a 85% relative rise

    You see that and think the story is with pretty happy? Really, James?

  56. James Joyner says:

    @Kit: An 85% relative rise in the smallest demo is perhaps the most interesting—and certainly the most click-worthy—story. But the actual story—the one which best represents the picture painted by the data—is that 76% are pretty happy or very happy.

  57. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: I really don’t have a dog in this fight, other than I think the categories a bit odd. I’m more used to seeing this type of thing divided into 4 or 5 categories with the results being the combination of the top two compared to the combination of the bottom two. So in this case it would have been X% responded Very Happy or Moderately Happy as compared to Y% who responded Very Unhappy or Moderately Unhappy. What happened in reality was that we went from 86% Very Happy or Pretty Happy to 76%.

  58. Kit says:

    @James Joyner: Where’s the face-palm emoji?

  59. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    I wonder how many high I.Q. folks voted for Trump

    Don’t mistake “high IQ” for “being smart”–and definitely not for “being wise”. I’ve met plenty of people with a 130+ IQ that I wouldn’t trust to tie their own shoes.

    A good friend’s wife is incredibly intelligent. Masters degree in medicine. When they were first dating, they were talking on the phone. She was very proud that she took her car to get the oil changed without any help.

    My friend asked her if they checked the washer fluid (Yep!}. Did they check the oil and gas filters? (Yep!}. Did they check the blinker fluid? (Ummm… I don’t know!). Did they remove the winter air from the tires and replace it with summer air? (No! They didn’t! Is that serious?!)

    This is the same woman who, while flipping through a catalog of sex toys asked if the dildos came with instructions.

    She’s highly educated, highly respected, and working in the medical field.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who was in all the remedial classes in high school, never went to college, and is one of the top guys in the R&D department developing new products to be certified for national fire safety standards, and use on US naval vessels.

    I have a nephew that’s very intelligent and articulate, very well educated, and a former officer in the US army in charge of logistics. He has a mixed-race family and supports a lot of “liberal” viewpoints. He supported Trump in the last election–and he can probably talk most of you under the table explaining why.

    We need to stop with the fallacy that “they’re on the other side because they’re stupid”. Progressives are some of the most bigoted people I’ve encountered. They’re so cock-sure that they’re view is the “one and only”, that they dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree and write it off as “they’re just too stupid to understand–we’ll do what’s best for them”. That attitude is exactly what pushed people to vote for Trump in 2016.

    1
  60. An Interested Party says:

    Don’t mistake “high IQ” for “being smart”–and definitely not for “being wise”.

    Indeed…look at none other than Ben Carson to realize “being smart” is definitely not the same thing as “being wise”…

  61. MarkedMan says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    while flipping through a catalog of sex toys asked if the dildos came with instructions

    I’m nearly 60 and so have had some life experience. Although I am boring, I am not naive. I happen to read gizmodo regularly and there is often an add for a particular dildo and, yes, I would like instructions. I truly don’t know how it is used. I have some guesses, but none of them make total sense. I think.

  62. Mister Bluster says:

    @MarkedMan:..I would like instructions

    Maybe this guy can help you out.
    (not sure if he’s still in prison)

  63. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I happen to read gizmodo regularly and there is often an add for a particular dildo and, yes, I would like instructions. I truly don’t know how it is used.

    I’m jus guessing here, but if they are being sold via an ad on Gizmodo, they aren’t used at all. Not gently, no driven into the ground, just new, unused dildos.

    Used dildos are more of a specialty product.

  64. de stijl says:

    I am very glad that there is an awakening that we are finally understanding that an injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.

    That took a long god damned time.

    That is the reckoning.

    It took many unnecessary deaths and beatings to get us here.

    I believe we are capable.