Are Americans Happy?

“If only we could stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”
Edith Wharton


Since the pursuit of happiness is one of the United States’ great inalienable rights, you’d expect Americans to be pretty happy. And most are.

The Evidence
Source: World Database of Happiness
  • Whenever pollsters ask, roughly one third of Americans will agree that they’re ‘very happy,’ almost 60% allow to being ‘pretty happy’ and a mere tenth sniff that they’re ‘not so happy.’
  • Digging deeper, rich Americans are happier than poor, but only slightly. People with more education are a little happier too. And whites are decisively happier than blacks.
  • But hold the presses! According to something called the World Database of Happiness, the U.S. is only the twelfth happiest country, neck and neck with El Salvador. This massive comparison of happiness surveys across 68 nations reveals a shocker: the Swiss are the world’s happiest campers. Maybe it’s the stunning mountains and lakes, trains that run on time, non-existent litter, political neutrality and excellent chocolate.
  • Who else is out-happying America? Clean-living, affluent, egalitarian Scandinavia grabs four smiley-face places. Canadians are just glad they’re not Yanks, Brits or French. The Dutch ride around on bicycles and get to smoke pot. Aussies are the ‘no worries, mate’ people. Ireland has lots of pubs. Conflict-battered Nicaraguans and El Salvadorians have reached manana. Iceland and Ghana, who knows?

The Blame Game
Why has happiness in America been stagnant for decades? Go back to the statistics and you’ll find one group of Americans who’s former good mood has been gradually deflating for the past thirty years. Back in the seventies, freshly ‘liberated’ American women reckoned their lives were as good as men’s. Fast-forward to the mid-nineties and Americans say women have a worse deal, three to one. Keep house, drive the kids to soccer practice and hold down a job? Pass the Valium, honey.

Are Americans honest?

“Most of us are honest all the time, and all of us are honest most of the time.”

U.S. Congressman Charles McMathias Jr.


Suppose you are riding in a car driven by a close friend. After a good dinner, he’s driving you home. It’s late, perhaps rainy. He’s going fast. The road curves sharply. Suddenly he hits a pedestrian. You stop and phone for help. A couple of minutes later you hear sirens approaching. Then your friend turns to you and whispers, “please! Tell the police I was obeying the speed limit.” He’s pleading with you, beseeching you. What do you say?

The Evidence
Source: ISSP, Religion II, 1998

  • 88% of Americans would rat on their pal, at least in this hypothetical survey question. The French, Italians, Japanese and Russians are far readier to lie to the law to save a friend’s skin. Latvians have mislaid their moral compass – either that or they’re disarmingly honest at answering ‘what-if’ questions. So are Americans a bunch of straight-arrow George Washingtons, unable to manage a fib about a chopped-down cherry tree?
  • Not really. A group called Transparency International ranks 102 countries for corruption – things like money-laundering, bought elections, bribery and tax evasion. Paraguay, Nigeria and Bangladesh are bottom-feeders, while Finland, Denmark and New Zealand are squeaky clean. The U.S. is an uninspiring sixteenth.
  • And America’s youth doesn’t offer much hope for improvement. Among high school students, three quarters admit to cheating in an exam during the past twelve months, a percentage that’s been going up for a decade.

I did not have sexual relations with that woman
In America, personal honesty is highly valued – it’s the first thing Americans say they look for in a friend. Telling whoppers is, after all, one of the Deadly Sins. If you have intimate relations with your intern, that’s poor judgement, but lie about it to the nation and you risk being kicked out of office. The same goes for covering up break-ins and erasing the audio tapes. For Americans, honesty equates to directness. Yes means yes, no means no and anything else is just weasel words.

Despite this, there’s plenty of dishonesty in America and not just by Slick Willy, Tricky Dickie and dozens of other politicians. Celebrities get away with rape and murder, given the best lawyers. Or take baseball, America’s field of bygone dreams. The Chicago Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series and their infamy lives on nearly a century later. Pete Rose gambling on games, players on steroids, home-run sluggers with cork bats – these scandals are big deals. Maybe you can’t trust the government, CEOs, murky special interests or their lawyers, but wistful Americans badly want their national pastime to be pure.

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Are Americans idealists?

“We Americans are, by definition, idealists. Our nation was borne of it. You cannot start a rebellion against the world’s most powerful king, or commit to the untried experiment that would become our constitution, without a foundation of idealism. Against those ideals, as recorded in the Declaration of Independence, the founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

E.C. “Pete” Aldridge, Jr. Under-Secretary of Defense, 2002.


Young, free-spirited, ambitious, radical - idealists want to change the world. Put one in the White House and you make many foreigners nervous. And who do idealists most despise? Not other idealists, no matter how contrary the ideology, but pragmatists - those worldly-wise, cynical balancers and fudgers. Life, say the pragmatists, is complex. We give a little here to get a little there and maybe when the sun goes down we’re a little better off. If idealism is native to optimistic America, then pragmatism hails from gloomy Europe. Its slogan is German: realpolitik.

The Evidence
  • A majority of Americans believes that human nature is basically good – a great foundation for idealism. Russians, by contrast, tend to view humanity as corrupt, in which case it makes more sense to act pragmatically.
  • When you ask people whether they prefer leaders who “stand firm for what they believe” (idealists) or who “are prepared to co-operate with others even if this means compromising some important beliefs” (pragmatists), people worldwide prefer compromisers by three to one. Idealism is particularly rare in war-weary Europe – Germany’s 12% is typical. The United States, with no recent home-field wars to dull its fervor, is the country most passionate about the pursuit of perfection.

Source: World Values Survey, 1995-98

It All Depends
Grand, hypothetical questions in surveys can be misleading. When it comes to practical choices Americans, like most people, compromise. This may be why the rest of the world gets irritated when America’s loud and lofty rhetoric is not matched by equally fine deeds. It’s a problem of over-promising and under-delivering. Absolutely, say unapologetic American idealists. Promising nirvana is what we’re all about.

Are Americans arrogant?

“We have all heard of Young America. He is the most current youth of the age. Some think him conceited, and arrogant; but has he not reason to entertain a rather extensive opinion of himself? Is he not the inventor and owner of the present, and sole hope of the future?”

Abraham Lincoln


It’s an age-old accusation. The Ancient Greeks suffered from it, so did the Romans, Spanish Conquistadors, Ottomans, Prussians, and the empire-building British. The weak and colonized can be relied upon to call dominant powers arrogant. Americans are merely the latest recipients of the label. Unilaterally opting out of climate control and land-mine treaties only fuels this widespread perception. Ditto American treatment of the U.N. – it’s my way or the highway.

Arrogant people think their ways are superior. When you are the mightiest nation in the world, that’s a tough trap to avoid. Then you get criticized for being overbearing and presumptuous. When American tourists presume foreigners automatically speak English – voila! That’s arrogance.

The Evidence

Source: Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes Survey, 2002

  • Does America pay much attention to the wishes of other countries when it acts in the world? Just over a quarter of Americans think so (perhaps naivety should be another American stereotype). Grateful Kuwaitis and Israelis agree. In all other countries, most people see United States policy as largely selfish. Percent of French people who detect American altruism: one.
  • But it’s not just resentful and envious foreigners who reckon America is arrogant. Gallup asked Americans themselves whether the A-word applies to their country. A whopping 68% said yes.
  • So much for labeling. The acid test of arrogance is whether Americans really think their ways are better. According to the Pew Center’s polls, 60% agree with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Only 37% of the allegedly arrogant French think this way, and a mere 33% of the newly humble British. But here’s the surprise. America’s 60% is low by international standards. 86% of Mexicans have superiority complexes. The proud people of Mali are similarly afflicted while 90% of South Koreans know their ways are best. American arrogance is actually below average. We just see it in action more often.

America versus Americans
Around the world, America’s influence has been growing. People know it and in many ways they like it – movies, songs, brands, food, attitude. They’re less thrilled about the impact of American enterprise and they’re sharply negative about America’s government. But the United States’ most popular exports are Americans themselves. With few exceptions (like Palestinians and Turks), the peoples of the world really like Americans.

This may be unique in the history of empires. Superpower leaders have always been despised as arrogant blow-hards, and America is no exception. Around the globe, nobody gets burned in effigy more often than the U.S. President. But such an overly warm welcome doesn’t extend to regular Yanks. They may be large and loud and prudish, but they’re not particularly arrogant. America yes, Americans no.

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Are Americans 'can-do' entrepreneurial risk-takers?

“Strive and Succeed.”

Horatio Alger

In 1851, at the zenith of its Empire, Britain staged The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London. It was a kind of Consumer Electronics Show of the day. Tucked among mighty Victorian machinery, the London papers made brief and patronizing mention of examples of “Yankee ingenuity.” The Brits didn’t see it coming, but American entrepreneurship was already powering towards global domination.

Where did this money-making urge originate? Freedom from government bred individualism, which bred optimism, which bred a ‘can-do’ spirit, which bred entrepreneurs. Helped by a giant and growing home market, the success of robber-barons like J.P. Morgan and Carnegie bred more entrepreneurs. Horatio Alger explained how it all worked in dozens of books about rural boys who ventured to town and made good thanks to hard work. It was all wonderfully American.

The Evidence

Source: Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 2002
  • Americans still buy in. Asked if they have a good chance of improving their standard of living, Americans reckon so, two to one. Western Europeans are barely neutral. Russians laugh hysterically.
  • But how do you get ahead? Money, connections and natural ability are not so important, Americans say. Instead they are most likely to point to hard work and ambition. These are two traits everyone can have.
  • These beliefs underpin the finding that in 2002, 11% of American working adults were entrepreneurs, meaning involved in starting a business or running one less than 42 months old.
  • This rate of entrepreneurial activity is significantly higher than in Europe and dwarfs Japan. Latin America, China, Korea and India jump out as the most entrepreneurial places on the globe, but this is a little misleading. Many ‘entrepreneurs’ in these countries are doing so as a pure survival tactic, including subsistence farmers and garbage scavengers. When just voluntary or ‘opportunity-driven’ entrepreneurs are counted, the U.S. lags only New Zealand, Australia and Mexico.

Horatio’s Lament
The good news is that entrepreneurialism creates economic growth and material prosperity. And America’s ‘can-do’ culture is remarkably invigorating, as generations of immigrants from ‘can’t do’ countries will testify. The bad news is greedy materialism, the complaint of people escaping from America back to tranquil villages in Italy. American business leaders, with their long hours and high stress, pay a high price for making the cover of Fortune magazine. Horatio Alger’s heroes never enjoyed any romantic life. They were too busy succeeding. Behind the steely gaze of a Captain of Industry lies many a frozen heart.

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Is America the 'home of the brave?'

“The brave man braves nothing, nor knows he of his bravery.”

Henry David Thoreau


It’s hard for the mighty United States to ‘own’ bravery, an attitude more associated with underdogs. Yet the USA is among a small club that likes to define its people in terms of bravery. Other members include genuine minnows like Scotland (‘the brave’), Afghan and Chechen fighters, New Zealand’s huka-chanting Maoris, and the blowgun-toting Huaorani tribe from the Ecuadorian Amazon. But is this yet more national anthem pablum? While bald eagle America has no monopoly on bravery, there’s plenty to suggest that it is a genuine national value.

The Evidence
  • The United States scores bravery points for having its story begin in victorious liberation from the mighty Brits.
  • Cleverly, American mythology co-opted the warrior personality of native American Indian ‘Braves’ - after first massacring them on the Plains.
  • The bravery cult gets a boost from having a few heroic and highly symbolic failures during independence struggles. Remember the Alamo.
  • Finally, frequent conquests involving the military create plenty of opportunities to re-supply the legend. In this regard, modern trigger-happy America is unmatched.

Against the grain
But bravery defined only by soldiers is not enough to make a nation truly brave. After all, it’s a soldier’s job to stand and fight. Iraqi soldiers did little fighting against the invading Americans in 2003, but we don’t think of them as cowards. Rather, they had no legitimate cause for which to fight (and feeble weaponry). So genuine bravery means knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way in support of a great cause.

That’s why John Glenn and the other trail-blazing astronauts are brave people. Among more down-to-earth callings, firefighters are the poster-boys of bravery. America has over a million of them and three quarters are plucky volunteers, almost all in rural communities. This is a massive number, the most visible echo of America’s brave pioneer soul. The great prestige of America’s fire service also hints at the stock placed in its values.

Bravery, at its simplest, is an attitude. Non-conformists, people who go against the grain - these are brave folk. Soviet-era writers and dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov spring to mind. Churchill and Gandhi faced lonely odds and never wavered. America’s finest recent example may be Martin Luther King, or for that matter, Rosa Parks who sat down in the bus. All of these heroes had the triple-play of long odds, personal harm and a great cause.

Twenty-first century America still likes the idea of free-thinking, but we live in cautious times. When controversial television host Bill Maher agreed with a guest that the 9/11 airborne terrorists were not cowards but in fact brave, the furore led ABC to cancel his program, ‘Politically Incorrect.’ Arguably Mr. Maher was being glib, ill-timed, even idiotic. But his out-on-a-limb quip serves to remind us how fine is the line between bravery and stupidity.

The United States does have a great cause: to bring freedom to people living under tyranny. If it could pursue this long-term ambition without bias from its near-term urges to prop up friendly regimes and safeguard fuel supplies, perhaps bravery would be more than just a national logo. In reality, America will continue to strike compromises, indulge certain dictators and ignore the bad it’s ill-equipped to fix. That’s not brave. But “Home of the Sensible” lacks resonance.

Do Americans use the most energy?

“The United States is a highly developed and industrialized society.
We use
a lot of energy.”

U.S. Energy Information Administration


The Evidence

    Source: Key World Energy Statistics, 2001, IEA

  • In synch with emissions figures, the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world’s energy. Rich countries are all above-average users, but the American way of life is remarkably demanding of fuel: lots of lighting, air conditioning and zipping around in big vehicles.
  • Although the U.S. taps its own coal, oil and natural gas, it consumes about 30% more fuel than it makes, a gap that’s likely to bet bigger. This shortfall has big, nay, huge implications for American foreign policy.

California Dreamin’
For the time being, America can sustain its energetic lifestyle through its global power. Whether planet Earth can support other countries’ energy aspirations is doubtful. Ballooning Chinese (and Indian) demand for energy will be a geo-political hot button of the next twenty years.

Barring a national emergency, it’s hard to imagine America going on an energy diet. But consider California, which years ago toughened heating and lighting standards in new construction and boosted incentives for using renewable power. As a result, energy use per Californian fell from 80% of the U.S. average to 50%. If the rest of the nation followed suit, America’s electricity bill would be halved and net demand for Middle East oil would be zero. In other words, kicking the habit isn’t a matter of technology, just leadership.

Are Americans fat?

“It’s tragic. Obesity has got to be job number one for us in terms of chronic diseases.”

Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director, Center for Disease Control


In its fantasy life America is thin. Tom, Julia, Brad and Angelina are all thin. Cosmo Girl is oh so thin. Even ‘reality’ TV contestants are mostly thin, except for one show about people trying to become thin. But check out the places where regular Americans go, like Vegas and Disneyland. Suddenly it’s a Homer Simpson world of spilling tummies, wobbly posteriors and legs borrowed from elephants.

Bad-mouthers say that the real America is fat, dumb and happy. Fatness, they suggest, stands for greed, a lack of self-control, over-stuffed people addicted to consuming. But before we react to the symbolism, what do the facts say?

The Evidence

Source: OECD Health Data, 2004
  • The majority of American adults are indeed overweight. Nearly a third are obese. A person who is five feet nine inches tall would normally weight around 145 pounds. Add fifty pounds of excess fat and you are obese. Resulting heart and liver problems cost the U.S. $100 billion a year in medical bills, 1% of GDP. The problem is growing throughout the wealthy West, but yes, more Americans are fat than any other nationality.
  • In total, one hundred thousand Americans will expire this year due to obesity, says the CDC. At Goliath Caskets in Indiana, sales are booming of 44-inch triple-wide coffins that accommodate 700-pounders.



Consuming more, burning less
We become fat people when we take on board more calories than we burn off in activity, and these days, this calorie equation has become seriously unbalanced. No wonder most American best-sellers are diet books.

But… America isn’t particularly abnormal. The less obese French, Germans and Italians eat almost as many calories as Americans. These Europeans consume even more fat per day - think foie gras, sausage and gelato. And while a quarter of Americans manage no physical activity at all, over a third of British adults are just as slothful. As for the blame game – too much television, desk jobs, cities that cater to cars not pedestrians - none of this is uniquely American either. The United States is fattest because fast-food diets and sedentary lifestyles emerged here first. American girths have been expanding for longer.

Obesity is not a lifestyle choice. It’s a costly problem. But for our purposes, plumpness is a handy metaphor for the broader America. In the minus column is greed - a country that doesn’t know when to stop. On the positive side, fat represents bounty, jolliness and generosity – a country that knows how to put dinner on the table and, what’s more, offer endless second helpings. As we will see frequently in this survey, the real America is rarely all good or all bad. It’s usually both at once.

Are Americans friendly?

“No American can be sure how or when another will react, so we zap each other with friendliness to neutralize potentially dangerous situations.”

Florence King, American essayist.


First-time visitors to the United States are often shocked. All that eye-contact, the smiling, the infamous ‘have a nice day!’ Americans seem such a friendly bunch. Maybe it’s a reaction to the wide-open spaces of the continent, a need for people to connect with each other. Maybe it comes from a culture that has always welcomed new arrivals and rejected the deference of class. Or maybe the whole thing’s an illusion and that friendly waiter means nothing more than sharp customer service.

The Evidence




Source: ISSP Social Networks, 1986


  • If you ask Americans how many close friends they have, just five percent are lone wolves, while a quarter claim more buddies than they have fingers and toes. But the average is eight. That’s similar to famously friendly (and vast) Australia, and twice as many friends as central and southern Europeans.
  • But these pals often live miles away. 40% of Americans admit that two or fewer of their close friends live in or near the neighborhood. So there must be lots of long-distance friendships. Perhaps that’s the best of both worlds: soul-mates forever but no requirement to spend time together.
  • When people need help or advice, they always turn to their spouse first. But for Americans that close friend is a strong second. Evidently Americans not only have lots of friends, they make heavy use of them, too. When people are asked how important friends are in their life, the U.S. is in the top three of 57 nations, alongside Sweden and Turkey.
  • Yet being friendly means more than just having friends. It’s an attitude, a decision. A forceful 80% of Americans agree that they actively try to be pleasant so others won’t get upset. Americans actively trying to be pleasant is what impresses many foreign visitors, while annoying curmudgeons who reckon it’s all fake.

Palling Around

It’s important not to confuse informality (“I’m Skye and I’ll be serving you tonight”) with friendliness. America offers both. Long-term visitors have been known to say that within a week they were on first-name terms with dozens of new folks, but a decade later they still didn’t really know most of them. Two other things about America: it’s big and people move a lot. That means fast friendship is a particularly useful social norm. But be warned – here today, gone tomorrow.

Are Americans idealists?

“We Americans are, by definition, idealists. Our nation was borne of it. You cannot start a rebellion against the world’s most powerful king, or commit to the untried experiment that would become our constitution, without a foundation of idealism. Against those ideals, as recorded in the Declaration of Independence, the founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

E.C. “Pete” Aldridge, Jr. Under-Secretary of Defense, 2002.


Young, free-spirited, ambitious, radical - idealists want to change the world. Put one in the White House and you make many foreigners nervous. And who do idealists most despise? Not other idealists, no matter how contrary the ideology, but pragmatists - those worldly-wise, cynical balancers and fudgers. Life, say the pragmatists, is complex. We give a little here to get a little there and maybe when the sun goes down we’re a little better off. If idealism is native to optimistic America, then pragmatism hails from gloomy Europe. Its slogan is German: realpolitik.

The Evidence

    Source: World Values Survey


  • A majority of Americans believes that human nature is basically good – a great foundation for idealism. Russians, by contrast, tend to view humanity as corrupt, in which case it makes more sense to act pragmatically.
  • When you ask people whether they prefer leaders who “stand firm for what they believe” (idealists) or who “are prepared to co-operate with others even if this means compromising some important beliefs” (pragmatists), people worldwide prefer compromisers by three to one. Idealism is particularly rare in war-weary Europe – Germany’s 12% is typical. The United States, with no recent home-field wars to dull its fervor, is the country most passionate about the pursuit of perfection.

It All Depends
Grand, hypothetical questions in surveys can be misleading. When it comes to practical choices Americans, like most people, compromise. This may be why the rest of the world gets irritated when America’s loud and lofty rhetoric is not matched by equally fine deeds. It’s a problem of over-promising and under-delivering. Absolutely, say unapologetic American idealists. Promising nirvana is what we’re all about.

Do Americans have a great tradition of charitable giving?

“One of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity.”

Andrew Carnegie


From colonial days to modern times, America has always had a vigorous flip-side to its ethos of self-help and individualism. While the poverty-stricken can’t expect much from the government, private grassroots charities stand ready to lend needy neighbors a helping hand. Mormons have the most explicit financial benchmark - everyone’s expected to ‘tithe’ 10% of his or her income to the Latter Day Saints. But all of America’s well-attended churches provide that weekend nudge, and out pop the wallets and purses.

The Evidence


    Sources: OECD national accounts 1997, Bixby 1997, AAFC, Charities Aid Foundation, Helmut Anheier


  • In 2004 total charitable giving in the U.S. was a whopping $248 billion, of which three-quarters came from individuals (not companies or foundations). This cash supports one and a half million charities. You can’t find a problem in America that doesn’t have at least one charity tackling it.
  • Big though this money sounds, it’s only two and a bit percent of GDP. In other words, Americans are much more generous tippers than they are givers. Moreover, it does little to offset America’s far lower level of government welfare spending than Europe. So the poor end up with less total help.
  • But America’s 2% still puts other rich nations to shame. Brits manage to give about one percent. Germans average just a third of a percent, but many also pay church tax, a kind of forced giving that bumps them to the British level. The stingy French stump up a measly 0.15%.
  • It’s the same story in terms of giving time. Over a quarter of Americans say they’re actively involved in a charity. Compare 5-10% across Western Europe, 2% in Japan and 0.5% in stone-hearted Russia.

A Veneer of Compassion
Charitable giving is a perfect illustration of the American Way. The U.S. has 40 million people mired below the poverty line and a high and rising degree of inequality. Those 1.5 million charities are only a marginal offset to these free market outcomes, but they’re enough to fund lots of bowls of soup and old clothes for people stuck in the gutter. In effect, American charity offers a veneer of religious compassion over the country’s dog-eat-dog economy. 70% of households make donations. This means that almost everyone who can make ends meet shares their leftovers. American generosity isn’t Bill Gates or Andrew Carnegie’s millions. Rather, it’s communities with little to spare but where everyone pitches in anyway.

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