Arts, Culture & Humanities

Cheerful Yanks?

Claude Fischer

In the 20th century a common stereotype of Americans was that they were a cheerful lot – perhaps too booming cheerful for Europeans who had to endure “have-a-nice-day!” tourists. An interesting article by a scholar of Bulgarian origin identifies a particular period in American history when “good cheer” first became an important value here, displacing an earlier, more dour phase. It appears that, now, in the 21st century, our modern cheeriness is in recession — and unequally so.

Cheering up

Poster: "Oklahoma" musical

"Oklahoma"

Christina Kotchemidova argues in a 2005 article that before the early 1800s, middle-class Americans emphasized seriousness in their demeanor, writings, and child-rearing. “American diarists of the seventeenth century consistently portrayed themselves as doleful.” As I noted in an earlier blog post, there was a time when middle-class Americans, especially women, cultivated feelings of melancholy as markers of their sensitive, refined spirits.

Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, claimed that the pursuit of (material) happiness generated a characteristic American unhappiness. In the 1830s he wrote that America’s promise of universal success bred sadness. “In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures . . .  forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. . . .” New York minister Henry Bellows made a similar observation: “All strangers who come among us remark the excessive anxiety written in the American countenance.” No matter how much they got, Americans, such observers thought, always felt that they come up short.

But, over the course of the 19th century, Kotchemidova contends, middle-class Americans consciously worked on their cheerfulness, or at least on having a cheerful front. Good spirits were not an expression of simple-mindedness, but of optimism, confidence, and egalitarianism. By the 20th century, cheerfulness was almost a social requirement and a theme in our commercial culture. Marriage guides expected women to be always upbeat; businessmen found profit in being nice to customers; how-to-succeed manuals stressed being cheery as a way to get a job and sell a product. Eventually, the fashionable melancholy of, say, the early 19th century came to be seen in the late 20th century as pathological depression.

Measuring up

A growing legion of scholars is now studying what kinds of people say they are “happy” and why (see this post). Where do Americans rank today in cheeriness? Crossnational comparisons are tricky, because of language and cultural variations. In some cultures, declaring that “Ev’rything’s goin’ my way” — to quote the classic musical, “Oklahoma!” — is considered impolite boasting. Still, some comparisons are possible.

Recent global surveys find that about 34% of Americans describe themselves as “very happy,” which is about average for the affluent western nations. The British were high at about 51% and the Spanish low at 14%. In a comprehensive analysis of many international surveys, two economists (pdf) found that the average happiness response of Americans was just about what one would expect given Americans’ standard of living – neither unexpectedly high nor low. Americans are in many ways “exceptional,” but not, at least, in the happiness they claim.

Uncheery, unequal trends

Contemporary trends in the United States suggest that, like economic inequality, happiness inequality has increased.

In the figure below, I show the trend in the percentage of Americans, from 1973 through 2010, who told the General Social Survey (the best tracker we have of Americans’ feelings) that they were “very happy.” (This is a quick-and-simple look at the data. More sophisticated analyses exist, such as this pdf and this.) I chart only 30-to-60 year-olds in order to simplify the historical comparisons – to separate out the turmoil of youth, the health issues of the elderly, and the tendency of people to report more happiness as they age. I also split the data by level of education. It matters.

graph

The percentages of Americans who reported themselves “very happy” bounced up and down over the years, but the general trend for college graduates was no trend. For those who had not graduated college, however, the 1970s were a decade of declining happiness and so have been the 2000s — a sad trend. (for the statistically minded, I note that the percentage of 30-60 year-olds who were graduates rose from about 10 to about 30 percent. That explains only part of the divergence.)

The history of American cheeriness is in part a matter of cultural fashion, as Kotchemidova suggests. It is also a matter of responding to real events. In the current era, Americans’ cheer is limited by harsher circumstances, especially for those facing the harshest circumstances.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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Comments to "Cheerful Yanks?":
    • Moira

      The cheery yankiness must be catching, as Australian organisations are expecting employees to smile and be cheery, and will be told by subordinates to be cheery. My answer to all the cherriness is, there is something seriously wrong with people who smile all the time, even when they are suffering. If ones mood is not congruent with affect or situation, therefore is madness.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood wrote “By using Schiller’s “Ode” to directly address humanity at large, Beethoven conveys the struggle of both the individual and of the millions to work their way through experience from tragedy to idealism and to preserve the image of human brotherhood as a defense against the darkness.”

      Tragically, we still haven’t found the defense against the darkness, and the philistines are running Congress and the United Nations.

      So the best we can do today is to listen to Beethoven whose genius most certainly is the greatest that humanity has achieved to date.

      Too bad science has never achieved his level of genius in order to save humanity from overwhelming greed, corruption and hate.

      Beethoven at least tried to help us work our way through the experience while scientists and intellectuals continue to fail to find the path to human brotherhood.

      [Report abuse]

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