Make Amer­ica happy again

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Carol Gra­ham is the au­thor of "Hap­pi­ness for All?" and a senior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

To make Amer­ica happy again, so­ci­ety has to fig­ure out how to make our coun­try whole. Un­der­stand­ing what di­vides Amer­i­cans — and what gives them hope — could be crit­i­cal to im­prov­ing their well-be­ing and the na­tion's.

By track­ing pat­terns in well-be­ing, and cre­at­ing pro­grams based on the re­sults, we can take steps to­ward tack­ling the malaise that af­flicts many of us, in­clud­ing the phys­i­cally and men­tally stressed, the job­less, the ag­ing and those strug­gling with drug use.

Sur­vey­ing well-be­ing and ill-be­ing in­volves ask­ing peo­ple how sat­is­fied they are with their lives, what their hopes for the fu­ture are and whether they re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced such emo­tions as anger or con­tent­ment.

When I ex­plored such sur­veys for my 2017 book on well-be­ing, some sur­pris­ing pat­terns emerged. Chief among them: Well-be­ing is more un­equal in the U.S. across race and in­come groups than in many other coun­tries.

Hap­pi­ness has fallen the most over time among the white pop­u­la­tion (par­tic­u­larly males) and (less sur­pris­ingly) the least ed­u­cated. Dis­tress was great­est among those in mid­dle age. And African Amer­i­cans were much more op­ti­mistic and hope­ful than their white coun­ter­parts.

It's long been re­ported that op­ti­mists live longer and health­ier lives. My re­cent re­search has found that to be true among those born be­tween 1935 and 1945 and still alive in 2015.

When civil and gen­der rights im­proved in the 1970s, women and African Amer­i­cans be­came in­creas­ingly op­ti­mistic. At the same time, less-ed­u­cated white men be­came de­cid­edly less op­ti­mistic as the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor de­clined, a down­ward turn that could be re­lated to a loss in sta­tus.

Re­search a col­league and I con­ducted on well-be­ing sur­veys shows that the same peo­ple

and places that re­flect the great­est losses in op­ti­mism (and in­creases in worry) in re­cent years are the most vul­ner­a­ble to the deaths of de­spair (be­cause of sui­cide, drug over­dose and al­co­hol) that are driv­ing up the coun­try's over­all mor­tal­ity rate.

In ad­di­tion, men­tal dis­tress is of­ten com­pounded by phys­i­cal pain. A study ti­tled "Un­hap­pi­ness and Pain in Mod­ern Amer­ica," pub­lished this month in the Jour­nal of Eco­nomic Lit­er­a­ture, an­a­lyzed data from 30 coun­tries around the world and showed that Amer­i­cans re­ported ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more pain than re­spon­dents in the other coun­tries.

The pain of some Amer­i­cans can be at­trib­uted to years of phys­i­cal la­bor or the lack of ac­cess to good health­care, prob­lems of­ten com­pounded by be­ing over­weight and obese.

Yet white Amer­i­cans re­port sig­nif­i­cantly more pain than African Amer­i­cans, who have equally poor or worse health in­di­ca­tors. The dis­par­ity may be be­cause of the na­ture of pain, which is not only phys­i­cal. Pain has psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nents too.

The pain Amer­i­cans say they feel is linked to broader na­tion­wide trends of hope­less­ness and des­per­a­tion. Re­spon­dents liv­ing in places with higher lev­els of deaths of de­spair — such as Ap­palachia and Youngstown, Pa. — are also more likely to re­port high lev­els of pain, ac­cord­ing to my re­search. Work based on well-be­ing met­rics shows that des­per­a­tion can be re­versed. In­ter­ven­tions and sim­ple pro­grams can im­prove a per­son's out­look. Such ap­proaches include in­creas­ing ac­cess to vol­un­teer­ing, the arts and shared green spa­ces. Sim­ply in­ter­act­ing with mem­bers of the com­mu­nity has been shown to raise the well-be­ing of those who have re­tired or dropped out of the la­bor force and are of­ten home alone.

In Santa Mon­ica, I worked with a team in 2015 that de­signed a well-be­ing track­ing in­dex and re­lated in­ter­ven­tions. When the sur­vey iden­ti­fied so­cial iso­la­tion as a marker of low well-be­ing, the city re­sponded with pro­grams that sup­port com­mu­nity en­gage­ment. These in­cluded group walks, li­brary vis­its and art projects.

Study­ing the met­rics helps pin­point trends and iden­ti­fies the vul­ner­a­ble. Yet for in­ter­ven­tions to be ef­fec­tive, they must also ad­dress such un­der­ly­ing causes of un­hap­pi­ness as drug ad­dic­tion and job­less­ness.

The high lev­els of re­ported pain in the U.S. also re­flect an epi­demic of mis­use of and ad­dic­tion to opioids and other painkiller­s.

In my home state, the Mary­land Be­hav­ioral Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­grams that teach chil­dren growing up with ad­dicted par­ents how to be re­silient, which in­volves teach­ing a sense of com­pe­tency and prob­lem-solv­ing and coping, among other skills. In Cal­i­for­nia, Be Well Or­ange County is de­vel­op­ing such pro­grams.

Much can also be learned from in­for­mal safety nets and com­mu­nity sup­port com­mon in African American and Latino communitie­s. These include ex­tended fam­i­lies, churches and other so­cial en­ti­ties that give pur­pose and mean­ing to life be­yond an in­come and a job.

So­ci­ol­o­gist An­drew J. Cher­lin of Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity has ex­ten­sively in­ter­viewed chil­dren of steel­work­ers from the now-de­funct Beth­le­hem Steel com­plex in Bal­ti­more. While many of the African American work­ers faced sig­nif­i­cant dis­crim­i­na­tion, many of their chil­dren at­tended col­lege and moved to bet­ter neighborho­ods. Yet they re­turn most weeks to the church near the fac­tory and reap the psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fit of giv­ing back to their com­mu­nity.

One cru­cial key to mak­ing Amer­ica happy again may lie in un­der­stand­ing the hope and re­silience of those who have been tra­di­tion­ally dis­ad­van­taged yet still be­lieve in a ver­sion of the American dream.

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