Plugging the voters’ happiness gap

David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times talks about the gap facing American voters. It’s not between right and left, not between rich and poor, but between voters’ ‘private optimism and their public gloom’.

It seems American voters are upbeat about their own lives, with the majority satisfied about their jobs, income, and future outlook.

But they’re decidedly downbeat concerning the state of their nation – including the president, Congress, the government’s problem-solving ability and its efficiency.

This ‘happiness gap’ means people are personally satisfied, but feeling threatened by the government’s inability to protect against global problems and macro threats. As a result, what the voters want is for ‘the government to change so their own lives can stay the same’.

My 2 cents

Are people really happy at a personal level? Much has been written (eg in Richard Layard’s book Happiness: Lessons from a new science) about ‘the happiness problem’ – the now-well-known statistic that although (US) incomes have doubled over the past 15 years, people are no happier. It may be that people are generally pleased with their material situation, but whether this translates into contentment is not so clear.

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article Peter Hartcher cited diverse but compelling evidence of an emerging ‘happiness agenda’ – a push toward making happiness a greater responsibility of the state (which I summarized in The politics of happiness). Part of the reason for the shift was a growing dissatisfaction with the spoils of economic growth.

So perhaps it’s not so much that Americans are sitting pretty personally. Perhaps they are simply less excited by the promise of further economic growth to fund more material goodies. Perhaps that’s why they’re looking for a greater sense of peace.

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