Over the past month I keep running into a “study” that claims that 84% of Americans are satisfied with their lives. I find this hard to believe. In fact, I think it is bull#$%$. I choose this word carefully and hope I do not offend anybody with it. I choose it because a Princeton Professor wrote a definitive book called “On Bullshit” and I want to quote from it. Here is what Harry Frankfurt wrote:
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bull#$@! requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is, to that extent, respectful of it…for the bull#@$%er, all these bets are off; he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly.. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
So I call bull#$@! on this survey that says 84% of Americans are satisfied with their lives. Now, first of all the headlines seem skewed when they claim people are happy when the study actually says satisfied. Regardless, consider these numbers:
53% of Americans believed in March of 2009 that we were headed for a 30’s style depression.
64% of Americans are obese or overweight. 34% are considered obese.
70 percent of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck.
If we added together the depression statistics, the unemployment statistics, the addiction statistics, the unhappy marriage and divorce rates and on and on and on, I simply find it hard to believe that only 16% of Americans are dissatisfied with their lives.
Anyone who spends anytime around me will hear one word over and over again. That word is data. Show me the data, the numbers. Then let’s talk about where these numbers come from and how they were collected. I’ve taught research classes and I can’t make heads or tails of most data we’re force fed.
But here’s why I truly don’t believe the happiness numbers. I have spent years listening to people late at night when they tell me how unhappy they are despite how positive they sound during the day. People answer surveys too often looking for approval or are scared to admit the truth for fear of being judged. The pollsters do little to triangulate the answers, to test their veracity…and this was apparently done by Gallup. While I believe in all of these people, I also suspect they would tell pollsters they are satisfied with their lives.
So how do I use this information? I use it as a reality check for myself. I use it to test how much I want something. I also understand that everyday I will have moments that feel good, that satisfy me. It is easy to tell myself “See life is good.” And if I think that, I seem to reset myself and that carries over and glosses over when something is not good or right. I might stop pursuing my promise because I have a false sense that somehow whatever made me feel satisfied tells me I am closer to fulfilling my promise.
As an athlete, I had a lot of wins and very few losses. I never played on a losing team in my entire life. I was Player of the Year in my area in high school and went to college on a full scholarship…so why I do I look back on it with little pride?
The answer is found in one of the oldest cliches in sport. Things are not as good as they seem and things are not as bad as they seem. I did not come close to fulfilling my promise.
Truth is I am as capable of bull%^#&ting myself as much as anybody which is why I now listen to data and I look for it wherever I can. Remember what Frankfurt wrote: “He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly.. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” I can do this with the best of them…and it needs to stop.
Unless I know all of the 16% of unhappy Americans, something smells bad about this survey. There is a difference between happiness and learned helplessness. There is gulf between satisfied and happy. And if 84% of Americans are happy or satisfied with where we are, we’re in trouble.
As a disclaimer let me add simply that if someone told me they are happy with their belief system, that they really have hope or believe if things were conducted a different way, things would be better, I’d say great. Then stand up for those beliefs. Test them in the real world and show me the data. I plan on doing this for the coming year and will be glad to share that data with you.
I do believe “Life is Good” but not as a slogan. Life itself is a miracle, but what we seem to do with it falls far short of its promise.