Overview:

Inequality, not inflation is at the root of unhappy Americans' unhappiness. It boils down to a deep sense of unfairness.

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“It’s the economy, stupid.”

It was a memorable 1992 quip that quickly went viral—and it’s still popular today—after being uttered by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s political guru, James Carville, the “ragin’ Cajun.”

Turns out, that theory may not necessarily be quite right, though.

Carville was saying that the state of the economy, more than any other metric, would decide the fate of 1992’s presidential election—and, he seemed to imply, perhaps any national vote outcome. That it is the be-all, end-all of politics.

New York Times columnist David Brooks—“The Rising Tide of Global Sadness”—believes a more universally accurate quote might be, “It’s a sense of well-being, stupid.”

Citing research by George Ward, a behavioral scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Brooks in a recent column argued that,

[S]ubjective measures of well-being are more predictive of some election outcomes than economic measures. Measures of well-being dropped in Tunisia and Egypt before the Arab uprisings. Well-being dropped in Britain before the Brexit vote. Counties in the United States that saw the largest gain in voting Republican for president between the 2012 election and Donald Trump’s election in 2016 were also the counties where people rated their lives the worst.

So, Brooks believes, people are more sensitive to how they are feeling than to how the nation’s (or state’s) economic health may be affecting their pocketbooks.

He puts data where his mouth is.

Brooks explained that British researchers analyzing more than 150,000 global pop tunes released from 1965 to 2015 found a precipitous halving of the word “love” in top-100 hit song lyrics during that period. Simultaneously, the use of strongly negative words like “hate” soared.

Of relevance, he noted the “hardening” of popular US singer Taylor Swift’s song lyrics since she “burst on the scene” in 2006. Whereas she once sang a lot about “the ecstacies of love,” Brooks notes that her latest album, “Midnights,” explores “negative emotions— anxiety, restlessness, exhaustion and occasionally anger.” To wit, she sings these lines in “Midnight”:

I don’t dress for women/I don’t dress for men/Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge.

An article in Aeon ezine about the research pointed out that at the same time song lyrics were growing more negative, the use of positive words in songs was decreasing.

But coarsening pop music is not the only sign that something may be seriously amiss in the world, Brooks noted.

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He cited a trio of New Zealand researchers who analyzed 23 million media headlines in 47 popular American news outlets between 2000 and 2019. They discovered that news headlines also “grew significantly more negative, with a greater proportion of headlines denoting anger, fear, disgust, and sadness.”

And it wasn’t just right-wing media. However, while headlines in left-leaning media “got a lot more negative” during the study period, as well, right-leaning publications “got even more negative than that,” explained Brooks, a moderate conservative.

What should be alarming to Americans is the findings of the latest General Social Survey (GSS), a sociological survey conducted since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center at University of Chicago and funded by the National Science Foundation.

[A]s we lament rising inflation and a worsening economy for the underclasses—even though they’re very real issues—they’re not the core reason for the have-nots’ despair. Inequality is.

The GSS, which asks people to rate their happiness levels, found that the index of Americans’ who characterized themselves as “very happy” plunged from just under 30% in 1972 to just under 20% in 2021. Concurrently during that period, US respondents who characterized themselves as “not too happy” rose from around 18% to about 24%.

Between 1990 and 2018—even before the coronavirus pandemic—the share of Americans who ranked themselves in the lowest happiness category increased by more than 50 percent. The pandemic just turbo-charged the acceleration of dissatisfaction.

All’s not lost, however.

The researchers of surging music negativity offered a caveat, pointing out that growing darkness is not terminal, that, in fact, songs always have “more words associated with positive emotions than … words associated with negative ones.” As they explained in the Aeon piece:

This is a universal feature of human language, also known as the Pollyanna principle (from the flawlessly optimistic protagonist of the eponymous novel), and we would hardly expect this to reverse: what does matter, though, is the direction of the trends.

And the trend, internationally it appears, is toward more darkness and less light.

The latest annual Gallup survey of the emotional quotient of 150,000 people in 140 countries contained “really bad news,” Brooks wrote, indicating that global experiences related to negative emotions—“stress, sadness, anger, worry, and physical pain”—rose to record high levels last year.

As of 2021, according to Gallup data, “the share of people reporting the worst possible lives has more than quadrupled,” Brooks wrote. The unhappiest people have become sharply more unhappy in the past 16 years—more than twice as many people now place themselves in the bottom category of unhappiness.

Brooks opines that three things are the main contributors to global unhappiness: a declining sense of community, food insecurity, and “physical misery.” And inequality.

Polls imply, he points out, that nearly two billion people “are so unhappy where they live, they would not recommend their community to a friend.” Especially in China and India.

Gallup reported that while 22.6% of the world faced significant food insecurity in 2014, 30.4% did by 2020.

And even before the pandemic, the proportion of populaces experiencing life-sapping physical pain was a significantly growing problem worldwide.

Even Americans, who enjoy the very best that life offers and have very little to complain about relative to the rest of humanity, are popping opiates with lethal zeal all over the country. More than 500,000 Americans have died from opiate overdoses since 1999, and more than a million are being treated for opioid addiction. And its worsening: the number of patients receiving government-funded, medication-assisted addiction treatment soared 142% from 2016-2018.

A noxious byproduct of all this global unhappiness and disfunctionality is an increasingly unstable Global Peace Index, which tracks international riots, strikes and anti-government malcontent. These harbingers of trouble increased a whopping 244 percent from 2011 to 2019, Brooks reported.

As levels of emotional inequality and discontent surge in the world, the rich and privileged, as always, continue to grow even happier, while the poor and disenfranchised grow steadily more miserable and radical. No matter what “the economy” is doing.

It’s the age-old dilemma of humankind, still unresolved. It’s why revolutions reoccur.

So, as we lament rising inflation and a worsening economy for the underclasses—even though they’re very real issues—they’re not the core reason for have-nots’ despair. Inequality is.

That’s really why unhappy people are so unhappy: fundamental unfairness.

It reveals the relentless failure of most governments throughout history to effectively rectify toxic inequality of everything—wealth, status, healthcare, opportunity, you name it.

It’s why Donald Trump became a cult hero to America’s white, aggrieved underclasses, who furiously believe they have gotten the short end of the proverbial stick.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...