Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Key to Happiness and the Death of the American Dream

by Nomad

A recent study on happiness can tell us why Americans are so angry with Washington. It has, the study suggests, been a long time coming.

According to a study highlighted in Psychology Today, researchers from University College London have discovered, after studying more than 18,000 people from all over the world, what really makes people happy. One key factor, they concluded, comes down to what we expect and how strongly we expect it. They were even able to derive an equation to predict the factors that created happiness.

Dr. Robb Rutledge, a cognitive and computational neuroscientist and lead author of the study,
“Life is full of expectations — it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing, for example, which restaurant you like better. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower. We find that there is some truth to this: lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness
But, according to Rutlege, that's only half of the story. Sometimes happiness comes solely from the expectation itself. When some people play the lottery, the expectation of winning and the plans of what they would do with the winnings is more than enough to keep people playing week after week. This is true when those expectations are known to be false or based on fantasy.

Using MRI scans, the researchers were even able to track the place in the brain where our happiness originates. They found that setting expectations and receiving the pay off trigger a release of a the pleasure hormone, dopamine, which excited those areas of the brain.
So, the researchers seem to suggest that having high hopes is one way to achieve short term happiness but having realistic expectations is more important to long term happiness. 

The American Dream and the Happiness of Fantasy
The findings on the surface might seem a little obvious. At least the results of the study fits pretty squarely with conventional wisdom about keeping your expectations low.

However, on a social and political level, there are some interesting implications. 
There are things that Americans have tended to believe to the core. One of those articles of faith is the American Dream. Some have argued that that dream is dead. The expectation that life will forever improve, that social mobility is possible if only one works harder and that you too can rise out of poverty by virtue of your ambition and your intelligence, all that is now forever lost. 

If the American Dream is truly dead, then America is going to be a particularly unhappy place to live. Especially for the middle class. The poor have learned from grim experience to expect less and many have been forced to rely on social programs. The rich tend to have their expectations met and can use the system to guarantee it. However, it is the middle class that will not so easily adjust to the downgrading of our dreams.

This effect, in turn, has profound knock-on effects to the elections. To win an election, the key is the middle class. Disenfranchise them, and you are sunk before you leave port. Blame them for unrealistic expectations and you might as well begin writing your concession speech. 

The problem is that the middle class has been trained to expect that their dreams can come true, even as they have become poorer over the last decades. Forbes reported earlier this year this errosion of the middle class
Not only did the income of the middle 60% of households drop between 2010 and 2012 while that of the top 20% rose, the income of the middle 60% declined by a greater percentage than the poorest quintile. The middle 60% of earners’ share of the national pie has fallen from 53% in 1970 to 45% in 2012.
The article also points out that America's rise as a economic powerhouse has been based on the fact that its prosperity was widely shared.
In the first decades after the Second World War, when the percentage of households earning middle incomes doubled to 60%, it was no mirage, but a fundamental accomplishment of enlightened capitalism.
Enlightened capitalism? What does that mean? When was capitalism every enlightened? As we shall see, this surge in the middle class income after the war could just as easily be attributed to some very special historical conditions which gave unparalleled advantages to the United States.

The Forbes article also makes another stunning statement.

Capitalism, according to Forbes, at least, is becoming less democratic. Forbes points to the fact that  "poverty — reflected in such things as an expansion of food stamp use — has now spread beyond the cities to the suburbs." (This assumes that urban poverty was somehow to be expected, I suppose.)

But wait, was capitalism ever supposed to be democratic? Thomas Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, in his book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” would call that idea hogwash. In fact, according to Piketty, "capitalism’s inherent dynamic propels powerful forces that threaten democratic societies."
A better question isn't whether capitalism becoming less democratic but whether 
it simply exposing its inherent flaws. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that poverty simply becoming more democratic?

Despite this evidence of a decline, there are still Republicans in Congress (like Speaker of the House John Boehner) who feel comfortable declaring that food stamps- the very benchmark the Forbes writer uses- must be slashed in order to maintain a balanced budget. The cost of the food stamp program has roughly quadrupled over the last decade, from about $20 billion to about $80 billion today.
Even the President himself - the supposed champion of the poor and middle class- ended up signing a bill that would cut food stamps. he even praised it "an example of bipartisan problem-solving." 

Those cuts, critics claimed, represented a reduction of  $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next 10 years.  In fact, House Republicans had originally drafted legislation that would have cut $40 billion from the food stamp program. That the legislation- which originally a farm bill-  would, according to the president, "help create jobs and move the American economy forward."

However, as nobody in Washington bothered to mention, the majority of food stamp recipients are already working.

For the first time in American history, working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households that rely on food stamps. Up until quite recently, the profile was very different with children, the elderly and other people on fixed incomes making up the majority. Today, roughly 47 million Americans now require some kind of food assistance. This is surely a flashing warning sign for the state of the nation.

It was clearly an attempt to appease the angry middle class who are blind to the realities of American poverty. Ironically- whether they realize it or not- the angry middle class may soon become absolutely ballistic when they themselves require the very government assistance they demanded that politicians slash.   

Before you blame the President too much, it is important also to remember that parties don't win elections by telling the truth. That's the last thing anybody wants to hear. 

Delusions and Disillusionment of the Middle Class
Being blunt with middle-class voters has never won an election. 
The classic case was the Carter-Reagan election of 1980. Before the election, President Carter attempted to lower expectations with some harsh realities. Materialism is a hollow high. We had to be more frugal, he said, we had to expect a little less. We couldn't expect unlimited material wealth without paying for it with our liberty. 
It was a wake up call for the blissfully dreaming middle class. They however after a grumbled promise to wake up, hit the snooze alarm. 

That brutal truth was skillfully turned against the president by his challenger, Ronald Reagan who portrayed Carter as a doom and gloom leader. Carter, Reagan said, didn't really believe in the American Dream which required faith above all else.There was nothing wrong with America, Reagan said, nothing that a little conservative policy couldn't fix.

Reagan for his part tended to say exactly the things that the American middle class wanted to hear. Whether those things were based on reality or not didn't really matter. It was about raising expectations. (and then lowering them gradually after the election.) 

It was about reinforcing the idealized image of unlimited American prosperity. In fact the American Dream of an ever-rising standard of living was probably always unsustainable.  Not according to the conservatives.  

Politicians on both sides learned a valuable lesson from the election of 1980. If you want to win elections, never, ever tell the truth to the American middle class. Never tell them that there were real limits to growth. Do not inform that the American Dream was based on some very particular historical circumstances. (The European self-destruction and the lack of competition from Russia, Japan or China, low energy costs, sound banking practices and a properly balanced system of tax.) 

Tell the middle class the truth today and they would not respect you, they will turn against you and very likely throw you out on your can. The American Dream is a national ethos, a set of ideals, and to deny it was as disloyal as spitting on the American flag.

Yet, when we look at the origins of the myth, we need to ask some hard questions that Americans by and large refuse to consider. The fantasy of the American Dream was best captured by James Truslow Adams in 1931 when he wrote that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. 
But "should" is not "is" or "must be." 

Nobody bothered to ask whether any of it was actually true for the majority of Americans. The mid-century turbulence of the 60s was the last time the middle classes dared to question or re-appraise this national ideal. Were there exceptions to the American Dream?

President Kennedy said in his Civil Rights announcement of 1963
It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case today.
If the American Dream was reserved only for a certain skin color, it could just as easily be reserved for a certain very limited class. In that case, if it is not at least potentially open to any of us, then the whole idea was a lie. 
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he can not send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
By the 1980s, nobody wanted to hear those questions. If you were poor, it was because you didn't want to be rich. Or you were inferior. Or you were too lazy to find a job. Or God didn't love you. 

And so for decades, the middle class continued to be told by politicians that they had a right to expect more and more from their country. They were carefully trained to expect it despite the diminishing returns on campaign promises every decade. 
At the same time, they were also being told by the conservatives  that they had less and less of an obligation to pay their taxes.

Writing for The Nation, Peter Dreier observes that it was precisely Reagan's policies- which Republicans still seem to place so much faith in every election- that were at least in part  responsible for finishing off the American dream.
During his two terms in the White House (1981–89), Reagan presided over a widening gap between the rich and everyone else, declining wages and living standards for working families, an assault on labor unions as a vehicle to lift Americans into the middle class, a dramatic increase in poverty and homelessness, and the consolidation and deregulation of the financial industry that led to the current mortgage meltdown, foreclosure epidemic and lingering recession.
He adds that it is no coincidence.
These trends were not caused by inevitable social and economic forces. They resulted from Reagan’s policy and political choices based on an underlying “you’re on your own” ideology.
And that's as far as the conservatives ever got when it came to policy. It has come to a political dead end. Today we are living in the ruins of those policies. The problem is nobody dares tell the middle class that the show is over. 

America: The Land of Crushed Expectations?
So what conclusions can we draw?
Let's review. Studies show that expectations bring happiness. Americans were once a happier people because they expected progressively better conditions, i.e., The American Dream. The dream seems to be finished and neither party can offer any long-term solutions to make the dream a realistic proposition. It has also become increasingly difficult perpetuate the myth .

Perhaps all this can explain why so many middle class voters are unhappy with Washington. According to a Gallup poll, two out of three Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed in the U.S. (In spite of that, the Republicans seem to have clung to the idea that the super wealthy deserve  a lighter share of the tax burden.)

That middle class dissatisfaction is spread across the political spectrum. On the far right, it has been expressed (mainly by the Tea Party) as a loss of entitlement by those in the middle class who once considered themselves relatively untouchable. White, male, Christian and conservative.

When you hear the phrase "Let's take America back" they are really pleading for a return of the American dream- which is now, in fact, a fantasy. Their solutions range from cutting various social programs to creating a corporate/ theocratic rule, from cutting taxes to overthrowing the democratically-elected government. 

America has become a land of crushed expectations of the middle class. Besides extremism and a return to failed policies, this 
lost hope has another face too. Apathy. 
And that too has played a significant role in the outcome in the elections, especially in the mid-terms.  
Voter turnout is often considered an indicator of the health of a democracy. If true, what it indicates in America is not good news. Moderates tend to stay home while the hard right votes. This leads to extremist candidates who represent fringe ideologies in our state legislatures and in Congress. This in term, as we have seen since 2010, leads to obstructionism based on ideology. Inertia and a complete cessation of the political process of compromise and bipartisanship

The solution? Obviously it comes down to managing expectations, not holding on to quaint fantasies of the past. We have to stop expecting the myths to be true in spite of the mountains of evidence.  Even when believing in that myth brings a short-term surge of warm and fuzzy feeling, akin to happiness. 

In order to save the nation, the moderate American middle class must vote and vote sensibly. But that also means that voting in candidates that dare to tell us what we might not want to hear.
If not, the American middle class will soon cease to exist.