Why Are Americans So Incredibly Happy?

January 13, 2009

[First published February 14, 2006] In spite the continual deluge of bad news from the major media, are Americans happy with their lives? The Pew Research Center (PRC) has published a survey, “Are We Happy Yet?” The PRC did telephone interviews of a randomly selected sample of 3,014 adults. The margin of sampling error is 2%, which is meaningless given the huge differences between groups of responses.

The most interesting result is on the overall happiness of Americans, as shown in the chart below.

About one-third of Americans are very happy, and half pretty happy, which totals to 84% of Americans are happy versus 15% who are not. This great happiness of Americans has been consistent since 1972, without much variation across economic recessions, war and peace, and presidential administrations.

How does this happiness compare to other nations. While questions are not quite comparable, we can get some feel for this from the World Data Base of Happiness overall rating of nations on, “How much people enjoy their life-as-a-whole on a scale of 0 to 10.” The U.S. is 7.4, which is exceeded by fellow liberal democracies Denmark (8.2), Switzerland (8.2), Iceland (7.7), and Mexico (7.7), while at the bottom are Armenia (3.7), Ukraine (3.6), Moldova (3.5), Zimbabwe (3.3), and Tanzania (3.2), all nondemocracies, except for marginally (electorally) democratic Ukraine.

I can’t believe any readers of my blog are politically oriented, but just in case I should note how American happiness breaks out by political party. The Chart below shows this.

And this is not due to Republicans having more money. The same breakout occurs regardless of income. Also, if rather than party, we look at ideology, then conservatives are happier (40%) than moderates (33%) and moderates are happier than liberals (27%). What is more revealing is that the strength of ideology makes a difference. Conservative Republicans are happier than moderate liberal Republicans (47 to 45%), and conservative democrats are happier than liberal Democrats (31 to 28%). Independents are almost at the bottom (29%).

The PRC carried out multiple regression analysis to pin down what accounts for the overall happiness of Americans. Overall, what best explains this are health, income, church attendance, being married, and being a Republican. Now, we know why the major media trumpet the gloomy, pessimistic, and depressing news. They are overwhelmingly dominated by non-church-going, liberal Democrats.

And note this carefully, the regression analysis showed education, gender, and race did not account for happiness, holding the other effects constant. Yet, our unhappy media liberals tend to focus on these three characteristics, and especially the last two, as though happiness dependent exclusively on them.

Finally, and to me the most important result of all. Being a cat or dog owner makes no difference to being happy or not. Again, so much for theory.