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.