Generally speaking, it is pretty easy for you to know if you are happy. While happiness is not a binary condition, you know if you are not happy. You may not be able to describe why it is you are happy, but the lack of complaints is usually a good enough answer. For the most part, you can tell if your wife and family is happy too. It is once you get past your close circle of friends, that it gets hard to know. Richard Cory, whenever he was in town, seemed like he was living a happy life, but you never can know for sure.
When it comes to society as a whole, social scientists have come up with an array of measures to figure out if the people are happy. These efforts have been financed by government for a long time, because rulers always assume that a happy people is a docile people. That’s not a bad assumption. You never see depictions of rioting peasants, where they are grinning and laughing. Revolts are always associated with angry mobs, turning on their rulers. Therefore, keep the people happy and you don’t have revolts.
For as long as anyone can remember, these measures of societal happiness have been focused on economics. Do people have enough food, housing and medicine? Is the economy growing? Can young people replicate the lifestyle of their parents? Is the gap between rich and poor creating tension? Pretty much all of the measures used to assess how things are going are focused on the bread side of the “bread and circuses” way of framing this issue. History says that’s a good way to do it, so it makes sense.
I recall walking down Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, in the late 80’s, seeing every business with huge “help wanted” signs. It was like they were competing with one another for the biggest sign. They were competing for scarce labor. Everyone seemed happy about the boom times. I know I was happy, but I was a young man with nothing but green grass in front of me. Still, it was good times and the long winter of the 1970’s was still in the back of people’s minds. It was a great time to be a young man in America.
It’s in part why people, old enough to have lived through those times, are so sentimental about the Reagan years. Overall societal happiness was also evident in the political realm. Reagan won a massive landslide in the 1984 election and his proxy followed it up with a landslide win in the 1988 election. It’s almost impossible to imagine it, but Reagan won states like Massachusetts and New York. Imagine that. There was a brief time when the Roundheads stopped hating everyone else long enough to cast a sensible vote.
This brings me back to the question of this post. The economy was supposedly doing well in the Bush years, yet no one seemed happy about the direction of the country. The neocons were the one exception, but they are only happy when Americans are suffering and dying. The Obama years were equally terrible, in terms of our collective psyche. The economy under Obama was not great, but it was not a depression. It was a long, slow recovery from the damage done by the cosmopolitan bankers in the Bush years.
Now? The economy is booming. Economists are talking about 5% annual growth, which has not happened since the 1980’s. The stock market, despite recent turbulence, has seen massive growth over the last year. If you believe the economists, America is nearing full employment. If you don’t believe them, you know that demand is now drawing people back into the workplace for the first time in decades. Wages are even starting to tick up in STEM fields, which has not be true in a generation. We are in very good times.
Yet, no one seems happy. Even a level headed and sensible person like me struggles to be optimistic. Everyone I know is glum about the cultural trajectory of the nation. If the fans of Jordan Peterson are correct about his fan base, it means millions of younger Americans are unhappy with the current state of affairs. If the critics of the Dissident Right are correct, it means tens of millions of white people think their country is heading for a very bad place. The Left, of course, is trying to burn it all down in a frenzy of rage.
Maybe all of these things really don’t matter. Maybe the culture wars and political wars are just the result of a bored people enjoying unprecedented good times. We are in a post scarcity age, where even the poorest person has more than enough food, shelter and leisure activities. In many respects, we are amusing ourselves to death. It could simply be that humans are built for struggle. When times are good, we look for reasons to create a crisis to against. Maybe we’re too happy.
On the other hand, it may be that the reading of history, with regards to social unrest, is incomplete about the causes. The American revolution was not triggered by severe economic troubles. The Civil War was not preceded by a depression. The English Civil War had nothing to do with economic difficulties. Even the French and Russian revolutions were about long cultural trends. The food riots that touched off the revolts were just the final straw. The fabric of those nations was in tatters long before they ran out of food.
It is something to ponder as Trump tries to recreate the 1980’s. That was when he began his steep climb to national prominence as a real estate magnate and public personality. He is a man of the 80’s, a child in the 50’s. Reagan wanted to restore the America of the 1950’s, his salad days, and now Trump wishes do the same. Maybe it will work or maybe it is just the remnant of a dying culture getting together for one last festival. Maybe the ennui is the knowledge that the old America Trump is trying to revive is gone forever.
Maybe we are Richard Cory.