We’re fine but the world is going to hell


According to Gallup, Donald Trump has been Making America Happy – or Happier – Again. Well, of course they don’t frame the issue like that, but the results of their polling on public sentiment are pretty clear:

Nine in 10 Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in their personal life, a new high in Gallup’s four-decade trend. The latest figure bests the previous high of 88% recorded in 2003.

These results are from Gallup’s Mood of the Nation poll, conducted Jan. 2-15, which also recorded a 20-year high in Americans’ confidence in the U.S. economy. The percentage of Americans who report being satisfied with their personal life is similar to the 86% who said in December that they were very or fairly happy — though the happiness figure, while high, is on the low end of what Gallup has measured historically for that question.

Or as the graph shows:


It’s personal life, but you can see how it’s linked with the state of the economy: satisfaction dips down with Jimmy Carter’s malaise, the early 80s Reagan recession, the early 90s Bush Sr recession, and then the long post-GFC slowdown.

The number of those saying they are “very satisfied” is also at a record high – moving up by almost 10 points in the last two years:


Perhaps not surprisingly, the wealthy, Republicans, men, married people and (more surprisingly) the young are the happiest. The least: the poor, women, nonwhites, unmarried and Democrats – though the differences are not huge (86 per cent of Democrats versus 93 per cent Republicans). Thank you, Mr Trump.

Yet at the same time as people express satisfaction with their own lives, the beliefs that the world as a whole – or one’s own country or simple others around us – are going to hell in a hand basket proliferate, no doubt reinforced as they are by the overwhelmingly negative media coverage of events. Climate is in crisis, the world is constantly on the brink of another world war, the President is a Russian agent and/or a budding dictator, the old economy is crumbling, international competition is becoming fiercer, life is getting more dangerous with rising crime and terrorism, social and economic inequality is skyrocketing, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting screwed, social mobility is stagnating, pandemics are on the rise, the middle class is disappearing, everyone is struggling… You get the drift.

This cognitive bias is hardly new, as Joshua Rothman wrote in “The New Yorker” two years ago:

In a book titled “The Optimism Gap: The I’m OK–They’re Not Syndrome and the Myth of American Decline,” from 1998, the public-policy reporter David Whitman cited statistics showing that, in nearly every domain of life—crime, pollution, health, income, happiness—Americans were optimistic about themselves but pessimistic about society as a whole. While believing that crime was rising in general, they congratulated themselves for living in neighborhoods that were mostly crime-free; convinced that the economy was getting worse, they remained confident about their own earning potential. [Steven] Pinker, too, finds that people are afraid for civilization but hopeful about themselves. Certain that those around them are living lives of quiet desperation, they continue to predict increases in their own life satisfaction. But it seems that this optimism gap isn’t just inaccurate; it’s pretty much backward. The world, as an objective whole, has been getting better. It’s our individual experiences of life that are unlikely to improve. We should be optimistic about civilization but neutral about our own future happiness.

This “I’m-OK-You’re-Not” bias is not difficult to explain: after all, we get to form an opinion about our own life from the first hand perception and experience, whereas we learn about the world mostly from the media. This is why the research such this conducted by Gallup should be trumpeted from every corner. If Mr X or Miss Y who are quite satisfied with their life realise that so are 9 in 10 of people around them it should click that their “big picture” pessimism is actually wrong: when nearly everyone is happy then it’s actually logically impossible for the world out there to be getting worse.  Which it’s not.

P.S. As previously reported, Donald Trump has also been making sex great again.