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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

America seems convinced we're a happy bunch

By Michael Powell
Washington Post


percent of Americans who say they’re “pretty happy”

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"What's happiness anyway?"

Say what?

We've got Raoul Felder, celebrity divorce attorney for the serially separated, on the telephone, and he's taking issue with a big new survey on happiness, which among other findings states that married Americans are more blissful than the unmarried by a ratio of almost 2 to 1.

"All these people talking themselves into being happy about marriage — it's mass delusion," Felder says with the certainty of a man who has become rich working the marital exit door.

Not that Felder fancies himself a sour lemon. "People who get divorced are very hopeful," he says. "They want to get happier."

So it goes with happiness, which in a new Pew Research Center report — "Are We Happy Yet?" — appears to be a smiley-face American birthright. Eighty-four percent of Americans describe themselves as either "pretty happy" or "very happy."

They've been relentlessly cheery for decades. The Pew report, just released, comes with a chart known as the "Happiness Trend Line," which reveals barely a ripple since 1972. (For careful students of the inexplicable, the percentage of "very happy" Americans seems to peak slightly in the mid-1970s, which coincided with a presidential impeachment, the fall of Saigon, a fuel crisis and a deep recession).

The polling data slice and dice the happy and the not very, and why they are and where they live and how much they make.

So we find, aphorisms aside, that Americans are convinced that more money makes for more happiness. "Reported happiness rises in a nearly straight line through eight levels of annual family income," Pew reports.

A gilded euphoria sets in above $150,000, as fully 50 percent of respondents insist they are oh-so-"very happy."

Does that trend line continue to arc upward? Are billionaires a gigglier group than mere millionaires? More data are needed.

"It's fine to say happiness is a state of mind," says Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor who studies his city's upper classes with an anthropologist's eye. "But it's a lot easier to have that state of mind if it's accompanied by big income."

What else? Dog and cat owners are equally happy, but no more so than the petless. Republicans and churchgoers have more pep in the step than Democrats and those who prefer to sleep late on Sunday.

White evangelical Protestants report they are happiest: 43 percent say they are very happy. Thirty-eight percent of churchgoing Catholics report being "very happy."

Thirty-six percent of whites and 34 percent of Hispanics report they are very happy. Both groups report being happier in greater numbers than do blacks, of whom 28 percent report being very happy.

Geography plays a role. City folks and sweater-clad Northerners are grumpier than Sunbelters, who are happy except perhaps during hurricane season.

But one might ask: What is happiness, anyway? And can we believe all these grinning people?

"Not too many people want to admit to a pollster that they are unhappy and failures," said Darrin McMahon, a professor at Florida State University who has written a book on the subject, "Happiness: A History."

"That said, the people who study subjective well-being will tell you that most people are pretty happy," McMahon added.

The mechanics of happiness are not entirely clear. Perhaps the prescription desk of the local pharmacy is of assistance.

But most speculation centers on Darwinian imperatives. For early man to roam the veldt in pursuit of mastodons and saber-toothed tigers required a certain wacky optimism.

"Man needed to be upbeat to keep going," McMahon noted. "And all species need to be happy enough to reproduce."