Why Aren’t Americans Happier Than They Were in the ’70s?
These results are disconcerting because American society superficially seems to have improved in many ways since the National Opinion Research Center began performing these surveys — in terms of general wealth, technology, civic equality, and various other metrics, as this summary of the issue points out. The per-capita GDP nearly doubled from $25,000 to $48,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1972 and 2012; the proportion of Americans who have completed 4 years of college has also increased by 19% during the same period, from 12% to 31%.
Americans are also more tolerant today than they were in the past. During the ‘72-to-‘12 interval, the percentage of Americans who felt that homosexuality is “always wrong” fell from 72% to 46%. The percentage of Americans who approve of interracial marriage between blacks and whites rose from roughly 25% in ‘72 to 86% in 2012. And the percentages of Americans who have abandoned the attitude that women who work outside the home damage their families have risen from roughly 30% to 70% over the same period.
One might intuitively expect improvements in GDP per capita, education, and social equality to increase national happiness, but these factors don’t seem to have made much difference. The graph below, which charts average self-reported American happiness versus real GDP per capita, shows the contrast between American wealth growth and the population’s stagnant mood:
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