Tyrone on American unhappiness

by on November 13, 2007 at 7:32 am in Education | Permalink

It takes one to know one, they say.  So I asked Tyrone -- my evil (and unhappy) twin -- how he would have debated the proposition that America is failing at the pursuit of happiness, and how he would have taken up the charge of Stevenson and Sachs.

Tyrone is so, so unhappy that he wants to make RSS readers unhappy too, so traditionally -- and sadly -- he writes only under the fold...

Tyrone wrote to me:

1. It is a mistake to focus on the survey evidence on happiness; maybe at first it shocks Americans that their country doesn’t come in a clear first, but America is bound to end up in the top tier and that will prove hard to counter.  The Easterlin paradox, which turns purely on the meaning of words over time, is also weaker than is commonly believed and of course Tyler and Will were going to be ready for that.

2. Start with the disproportionately large number of Americans in prison.  They are not happy.  Furthermore they don’t get to answer most questionnaires.

3. Then ask: given how rotten prison is, why did those Americans take the chances that might put them in prison?  How many people were just as unhappy, or nearly as unhappy, but didn’t chance a crime or end up in prison?  What does the distribution of the process have to look like, and what are the implied levels of unhappiness, to place so many people in prison?  The answer to those questions will be ugly.

4. Then move to race and cite those studies showing that many white people say they wouldn’t want to be black for a million dollars.  There are a few different ways to interpret those answers, but none of them are favorable for the pursuit of happiness in America.

5. Cite statistics on how many Americans are obese.  Some of this is genetic variation, but still the happiness-generating process has to be pretty badly skewed to generate so many pounds.  Ask Tyler whether he thinks that most truly obese women are happy.

6. Ask Will to provide a running stream of consciousness of what runs through his mind when he visits a K-Mart in rural West Virginia.

7. Paint a convincing portrait of Americans as the people most prone to self-deception, self-puffery, and the most likely to lie about their own levels of happiness.  Attack the reliability of happiness studies.

8. Present moderation as a prerequisite of happiness, and argue that America is anything but a land of moderation.

9. Cite the millions of Americans — now one out of every ten women — who take Prozac or other anti-depressants.  Yes, there is strong evidence that Prozac makes people happier.  But surely such people can be said to have "failed in their pursuit of happiness."  They didn’t start off wanting to be happy by taking a drug.

10. Don’t push income volatility or poverty too hard.  It will collapse into "things aren’t perfect" and allow the other side to focus on America’s very considerable economic achievements.  Nor put too much blame on America’s relatively weak welfare state.  That is a symptom of American social illness, not a cause, and more fundamental is that the poor themselves don’t care enough about their own fate (so why then would anyone else either?).

11. And why do European women seem so much more self-assured than do American women?

Yes, that is what Tyrone thinks.  Poor, poor Tyrone.  No wonder he is so unhappy.  He thinks he is surrounded by so many other unhappy people.  That makes him contrarian by nature.

Some people say that the debates between Tyler and Tyrone are the most interesting of all.  But I know better.  When such debates end, Tyler is always happy, and Tyrone always unhappy.  Doesn’t that alone show that Tyler usually has the better of it?

1 different jeff November 13, 2007 at 8:09 am

I do wonder if German women shave their armpits as the norm nowadays. That they didn’t was pretty surprising to a young GI about 15 years back (and about 10 years before that, the little youngster actually gagged while watching a SNL rerun where Radner played a drugged out Joplin type with plenty of pitular plumage).

I wonder if this ties in to #11. Traditionally, have American women been more insecure and concerned with appearance? Was popular culture more prevalent here and is it related to our much-ballyhooed sexual repression?

If so, I wonder if it is waning with all the new-bohemian, tattooed, and pierced style, or if this is just the next iteration.

And what does the fact most 20 year old boys now use hair products portend?

And who will take the bait with the WV comment…?

2 Anonymous November 13, 2007 at 8:26 am

“We’re not happy until you’re not happy”

3 Erik November 13, 2007 at 9:19 am

“11. And why do European women seem so much more self-assured than do American women?”

They do? As a European I must say that I have the opposite view, but I have just as little data to back up my case as Tyron…

4 Scott W November 13, 2007 at 9:26 am


I seem to remember a post on MR saying how much better marriage is now than it used to be. We now pair more with people that share our interests, and it seems that married couples (particularly women) are much happier than they used to be. Did this come up in the debate at all?

Maybe you can calm Tyrone (and the other unhappy’s) a bit by citing this marked improvement in the vast majority of Americans’ lives.

5 holmegm November 13, 2007 at 9:51 am

4. Then move to race and cite those studies showing that many white people say they wouldn’t want to be black for a million dollars. There are a few different ways to interpret those answers, but none of them are favorable for the pursuit of happiness in America.

Hmm. I wouldn’t accept a million dollars to change myself from a man into a women … and that doesn’t mean I think it’s awful being a woman.

6 happyjuggler0 November 13, 2007 at 10:42 am

I am happy. 😡

Ok, I’ll bite on WV, but only on the economy. Happiness not withstanding, there is no doubt in my mind that the vask bulk of people in WV would ultimately be much better off economically if their government stopped shooting them in the foot. Namely, WV should abolish their corporate income tax, abolish their capital gains tax, and abolish their taxes on dividends and interest. Finally, they should change their constitution to be a right to work state.

Right now there is no incentive for an outsider to open a business (aside from something like a KFC) in WV as opposed to elsewhere in the US. There is also a huge incentive for WV’s best and brightest to leave WV ASAP (usually upon graduation of high school or college) instead of sticking around to start a business for example, or sticking around to work at that multinational that has a branch in WV (essentially no corporations do).

I feel sorry for those in WV who vote to liberalize their economy but don’t have enough votes, and I understand why they leave. I feel sad for those who don’t understand the imperative to do so and who instead continue to vote for candidates who promise to continue the status quo.

The Democratic Party is the party that tries to make poverty liveable, thus institutionalizing poverty in the process. So long as states like OH and MI continue to vote that way, they will continue to piss away their centuries old (or century old anyway) endowment that was built up under more growth oriented regimes. So long as states like WV and ME continue to vote that way, they will remain poor.

Not that most Republicans seem to care about the poor, but their progrowth bias tends to let them stumble upon a way out for the poor in an unintentional invisible hand kind of way. It is only when they try to emulate the Democrats like Bush does with his irresponsible healthcare mandate expansion that they become part of the problem instead of the solution too.

7 happyjuggler0 November 13, 2007 at 10:45 am

you first have to have the option for plenty in order to exercise moderation.

I’m going to shamelessly steal that idea in the future. 😮

8 Nick M. November 13, 2007 at 11:12 am

About the WV comment.

I spent a month in rural WV last year and I found that the people there seem to be happy (and very nice).

I would think a k-mart in a bad neighborhood in LA or NY would be much more likely to get your point across.

9 Derek Keener November 13, 2007 at 11:37 am

This is a very humorous, but true piece. I agree with this by saying America is not happy and not as fortunate of their lives. Americans turn to different things to make them happy such as Prozac, food, illegal drugs, alcohol, and anything that can alter the way they think. The reason I think behind this is because they way our society is today. Technology has made it easier for us to live but has also made us Americans lazy. America was its happiest Post-war times. I think the reason behind that is because American carried a swagger and there was a lot of American pride. This pride made people HAPPY and glad to be an American. We just must understand that the American society is changing. For number 11 I do not really have an answer to that. I believe the opposite, I believe American women are more secure then European women have ever been.

10 guest November 13, 2007 at 12:42 pm

7 and 8 are quite important in my view. Our economy and society is not nearly as hedonistic as it could be, but this seems to be a result of people either not being properly informed about what would be best for them or having different goals than life satisfaction. Happiness studies show that leisure time, social involvement and freedom from negative stresses are very important determinants of long-term happiness; so why does American society fare so badly in these areas?

11 William Newman November 13, 2007 at 2:08 pm

I’m not sure happiness is usefully defined. This is not just an objection I’ve cooked up for this problem, it’s fairly common for me. E.g., my usual reaction to “81.34% of Americans think they are above-average drivers, surprisingly pathetic, huh” is that it’s about what I’d expect given how well you defined the question. 19% of people think above-average drivers drive fast enough and close enough to the car in front of them to maximize throughput, and almost all of them choose to do that themselves, so they are above average. 26% think an above-average driver drives very cautiously, and most of them choose to do that most of the time. 6% think an above-average driver is one who is particularly unlikely to get lost, and 4% manage to achieve that aim. And so forth into the long tail until you reach around 80%. Some fraction of them *are* simply deluding themselves about their performance, but I really doubt it’s the 30% of the population that people seem to assume.

(We went through multiple rounds of pointless questions in the history of quantum mechanics. E.g., which is right, Schroedinger’s equation or Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics? Which is right, Feynman’s or Schwinger’s or Tomonaga’s approach to QED? With that in the background, you gotta expect someone who’s studied QM to pick up a certain skepticism about whether a question is necessarily meaningful, and to try to get you to ground it in the predicted outcome of a specific experiment. “If all holders of drivers’ licenses in the US were to run time trials on the Indy 500 course in stock Toyota Camrys, do you think you would come out in the top 50%?”)

12 Alex J. November 13, 2007 at 3:11 pm

More Theodore Dalrymple (reminds me of unhappy chess players):


“The fact is, however, that political reforms in Australia, whatever they might be, are very unlikely to add much to the sum of human welfare there. Australia confronts human beings with their existential responsibility to make happiness for themselves, and this is sometimes a hard responsibility to face up to. For if you are unhappy in a country like Australia, you have to consider the possibility that the problem lies with you rather than with the conditions that surround you.”

13 odograph November 13, 2007 at 3:28 pm

William N. – See the book “Stumbling on Happiness” for a pretty good defense of self-reported measures of happiness. But also, ;-), consider that self-deception on things like driving ability are symptoms of a biological bias toward happiness.

14 Hovie November 13, 2007 at 6:42 pm

How many black people want to be white, and how does the amount of the conversion premium (the million dollars) play a role?

15 Franklin Harris November 13, 2007 at 8:30 pm

Could you clarify this? Do you mean people in rural WV aren’t happy or do you mean they depress you?

Well, hell is other people….

16 Dave Tufte November 14, 2007 at 1:26 am

Tyrone is a stinker with that under-the-fold nonsense. 😉

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