The economy may be improving, but many Americans are still miserable. Some people recently expressed surprise that New York City — the home of Broadway, the Statue of Liberty and Central Park — was ranked as the No. 1 city where Americans are unhappiest, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Census and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authored by economists at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia.
“Newer residents of these cities appear to be as unhappy as longer term residents, and yet some people continue to move to these areas,” it found. (Incidentally, Lafayette, La. ranked No. 1 for the happiest.)
Other studies have suggested that Americans are increasingly unhappy. In fact, they’re less happy compared with a decade ago, according to a recent Fox News poll jointly conducted by Anderson Robbins Research and Shaw & Company Research. Some 53 percent of Americans were “very happy” or “happy.” And while that’s a (slim) majority, it’s still down from 56 percent in 2009 and a significant slump from 68 percent in 2001, previous studies concluded. And the rate of antidepressant use has surged 400 percent over the last decade, according to the CDC, though that may also be due to the heavy marketing of drugs like Zoloft, Lexapro and Paxil.
There’s been some backlash online. This grouchy video mash-up of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” has clocked up over 100,000 views.
“We need to look at why we are unhappy,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living spiritual movement and, most recently, a free app to track your happiness called Truly Happy. Shankar, who lives in Bangalore, India, and is one of the most high-profile spiritual leaders in India, says unhappy people often need direction. “Usually, it’s lack of energy in body and mind,” he says. Our consumer culture doesn’t help. “When people are fed up with their routine, and life seems to have no aim and meaning, then people do get depressed, despite having so many physical comforts,” he says.
One reason for all the unhappiness could be that wages are stagnant and many people are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. “Money is a little like health, you don’t want to talk about it with your friends because there’s a little bit of shame around it,” says Andrew Meadows, consumer and brand ambassador at The Online 401(k), a fee-based retirement plan provider based in San Francisco. Some 36 percent of Americans have not saved any money for retirement, according to a new Bankrate.com survey. Some people think you need to have tens of thousands of dollars to start saving and investing, so rather than save or invest a little, they do nothing, Meadows says. “They ask if there’s going to be another crash.”
But there’s a lot you can do to turn your frown upside down. Acquiring a more positive outlook does take work, says Jackie Ruka, founder of Get Happy Zone, a professional development organization. “Savor ordinary events, avoid comparisons, keep a gratitude journal, have meaningful goals, exercise and put money low on the list,” she says. “Engage in some social service activity,” Shankar adds.
Indeed, Americans are generous when it comes to helping the less fortunate: 65 percent of Americans volunteered their time in 2013, a survey by Gallup found, up from 59 percent in 2004.
MarketWatch asked a panel of experts — some financial rather than spiritual gurus — why we’re feeling glum. Here’s what they said.
We Are Zoning Out With Gadgets
Computers help us escape from our emotions, studies suggest. Sixth grade children who spent five days at a summer camp without technology had significantly improved emotional cognition — recognizing different emotions on others — than those who spent 4.5 hours a day at home texting, watching TV and gaming, according to a new study of 100 kids by researchers at UCLA and published in the latest edition of the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Understanding emotion is a critical skill, especially for young children, says Yalda Uhls, co-author and senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center at UCLA. “It’s been linked to positive academic and social outcomes,” she says.
50 Percent of People Feel Stressed
Did your dry cleaner sigh (loudly) when he set eyes on your mound of dirty laundry last night? Did another driver cut you off on your way to work this morning? There could be a reason why: Almost half of Americans said they’d experienced a major stressful event in the last year, according to a recent survey of 2,500 adults by National Public Radio, the non-profit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health. Young adults were more overwhelmed by responsibilities while older adults cited health problems, but both suffer almost equal amounts of stress. People often respond by sleeping less, eating less and exercising less. “Meditation and breathing exercises can help eliminate stress and renew enthusiasm,” Shankar says.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
The way movie stars lived 40 years ago — except, perhaps, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in their heyday — pales in comparison with the lifestyles of Internet billionaires today, says Dean Baker, a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “Today’s billionaires have islands and yachts,” he says. Reality TV and celebrity magazines are ubiquitous, he says. People who share about their fabulous vacation on Facebook are not going to help most Americans feel better. And keeping up with the Joneses is tougher now because of sites like Facebook. In the past, people might have been jealous if their neighbor drove up in a new car, but now they see a constant stream of their friends on seemingly fabulous vacations and at fancy cocktail parties rubbing shoulders with celebrities. “People are much less secure in their lives than they were before the crash,” Baker says.
There Are No Siestas in The U.S.
“Americans are among the hardest working people in the world,” says Mark Hamrick, Washington, D.C. bureau chief with personal finance website Bankrate.com. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the industrialized world that does not require employers to offer paid parental leave. What’s more, Americans only take half of their paid vacation days, recent research by market research firm Harris Interactive and careers website Glassdoor found. The U.S. is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t require employers to provide paid time off. Americans also work 40 hours per week, more than many European countries. In the U.K., for instance, most companies offer workers four to five weeks of paid vacation when they join.
Many Americans are Unhealthy
People self-soothe with food when they might be better served having some physical exercise, which could help reduce the obesity epidemic in the country, Hamrick says. More than one-quarter of American adults define themselves as obese, according to the Well-Being Index calculated by market research group Gallup and health-care consultancy Healthways. But the real obesity rate is closer to one-third of the population, says Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, as many people (intentionally or not) underestimate their own body weight. Too much sugar consumption is also one of the most direct causes of Type 2 diabetes, Wootan says.
Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter for MarketWatch based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.