It’s a Healthy Sign When Americans Fail the ‘Happiness’ Test
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When the 10th annual comes out next month, several things are sure bets. The Nordic countries will score highest. The U.S. won’t be in the top 10. And commentators will suggest that if Americans could only be more like the Finns and Danes — with a stronger social safety net, less economic inequality, more ethnic homogeneity or cozier homes — we wouldn’t be so grumpy.
What few will notice is that the ranking doesn’t measure happiness. It measures contentment and complacency. It penalizes imagination, opportunity and ambition.
Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
What kind of life you consider “possible” determines how you rank the life you have. The Cantril Ladder measures the difference between imagination and reality. High scores go to those who can’t picture a significantly better life than the one they already know. A country, or a class, with modest opportunities will score higher than one with great ones.
Take the contrast between Oprah Winfrey and her grandmother Hattie Mae Lee, who worked as a maid in the segregated South and died in 1963. “Her idea of having a big dream,” in a 2007 Howard University commencement speech, “was to have White folks who at least treated her with some dignity, who showed her a little bit respect. And she used to say, ‘I hope you get some good White folks that are kind to you.’”
If the “best possible life” you imagine is being a maid with a decent employer, it’s easier to achieve a 9 or 10 than if your best possible life is being a billionaire media mogul. Expanding the opportunities available to a Black woman allowed Winfrey achieve her dreams — but she’s just one individual with unusual talent and drive (and some luck). A Howard graduate working in corporate public relations while harboring Oprah-inspired ambitions will feel dissatisfied. Her present circumstances might dazzle her ancestors, but she can imagine something much grander. Opportunity breeds discontent.
Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville captured the paradox. Despite their prosperity and freedom, the (mostly White) Americans he met as he toured the country in 1831 struck him as gloomy. “It seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow,” in “Democracy in America.” He contrasted these fortunate citizens with the peasants of European backwaters, who were ignorant, poor and oppressed, “yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light.”
The difference, he concluded, was that the peasants took their hardships for granted while Americans “are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess.” Imagining better lives, the people of the young United States were never content.
Born an aristocrat, Tocqueville may have overestimated the happiness of those with few opportunities. But he was right about the dynamic. More opportunity breeds greater dissatisfaction. People see others living better lives and seek to emulate them. They either achieve their goals, only to imagine something even better, or they fail. In either case, ambition leads to “brooding over advantages they do not possess.”
Greater opportunity also means greater competition. Tocqueville described it this way:
When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, while it gives freer scope to their desires. Not only are they themselves powerless, but they are met at every step by immense obstacles, which they did not at first perceive. They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position.
We see this phenomenon everywhere these days. More people can go to college, but the number of applications can be overwhelming. UCLA, , got 139,490 applications for the class of 2025 and accepted 11%. , 61,554 applied and 25% were accepted. It’s easier than ever to produce a song, make a movie, publish a book, or market a consumer product. But it’s harder than ever to grab the audience’s attention.
Opportunity leads to competition, and competition leads to disappointment: It’s the story of our time, and the source of many of the stresses and resentments roiling U.S. culture.
But it’s also the source of American achievement and American strength. Discontent is woven into the fabric of the nation, intertwined with ambition. The two cannot be separated without unraveling the whole.
“In democratic times,” wrote Tocqueville, “enjoyments are more intense than in the ages of aristocracy, and the number of those who partake in them is vastly larger: but, on the other hand, it must be admitted that man’s hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed, and care itself more keen.”
If you’ve never felt like a failure, you aren’t ambitious enough. Or you live in a society that limits your potential — and its own.
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Tocqueville wrote that free Blacks in New York and Philadelphia were“condemned by the laws and by public opinion to a hereditary state of misery and degradation.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University and the author, most recently, of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.”
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