Being American: Stability and Happiness (?)
Living in other countries can provide a lot of perspective on life. This past year I have lived in Copehagen, Denmark, a country with the highest happiness index in the world. Lately, I was trying to understand why its index is so high. On the issues of wealth and economic status, the US and Denmark are similar. One claim is that Denmark has a state supported health system, yet the Danish pay 45% in taxes, whereas in the US one pays for ones’ own medical expenses, so ultimately the cost is similar. Education is one key area, since children’s education is also state supported, but ultimately this comes from high taxes in Denmark as well. The climate is similar, perhaps even harsher in Denmark. Cost of living is actually higher. So what is it?
I’ve come to realize that it is the social model of living which is the cause. What does this mean? It means, quite simply, that people look out for one another – in individual lives, in family, work, and in government – to a greater extent than the US. I actually believe the Danish government has less control over the people than the US, even though republicans in the US would say any government regulation is socialist. The point is, a social society is not necessarily “socialist”. The later term is a throwback to economic models of centralized wealth (e.g. communism). A 50% tax is high, but there are also more or less wealthy Danish individuals, and the country trades in a free market like any other nation. A social model of living simply means that governments, people, companies look out for each other – both in life and in legal terms. This adds a feeling of stability which allows one to feel calm, centered in life.
In the US, the concept of capitalism is adopted to such an extent – especially legally, in business and government, but also individually – that one is in constant fear about what others will do to you. And it is justified. People have no moral qualms about literally stealing from others. Take the US Government Debt issue. The wealth class of the Republican party has essentially told the US people — directly and openly — it is willing to force a default on US debt, or greatly compromise our nation, in order to secure their own private wealth. The message? “We are screwing you. Deal with it.”
Such practices are not limited to government. In an extreme capitalist society, there are always extremists, and they will ruin it for the others. Consider hydrofracking in Pennsylvania and New York. The idea is to force high pressure water into underground rocks, causing deep rock beds to crack and release natural gas. It destroys aquifers, causes seepage, and does other unknown damage. Its a bad idea. Period. (See other sites for details). But in a capitalist market, there are people who are willing and ready to engage in this morally wrong behavior toward others. And the laws will either allow it, or be circumvented to permit it. In the US, the right to individual success trumps social responsibility.
And this is the whole cause of the dilema, unhappiness. One lives in fear that at any moment, some lunatic in politics will cause a default, some lunatic in medicine will place his or her paycheck above their responsibility to the patient, some lunatic in an insurance company will screw with you. Someone may try to rob your house. The lack of social stability is the root of unhappiness in the US – its cause is a decline of moral responsibility to society, incorrectly justified in the right to individual happiness.
So what are some solutions? Having experienced these declining conditions for the past twenty years, I must admit I am not optimistic on a national scale. Our public debate (media), our dialog, our approach to life, does not suggest people are ready to calm down, to relax and settle social issues rationally and with the correct amount of intelligence, focus, and humanity. Especially among those in power.
What can I do if I am an American?
The first thing, I have found, is to realize two things. First, being born American is not actually that great, it is a disadvantage in many respects. One can suffer these issues of social isolation, fear, and even psychological imbalance ones’ whole life due simply to a lack of feeling socially secure with other Americans. Second, its not your fault. I did not choose to be born American, no more than a person in Zimbabwe choose it. One has little or no support for health and nutrition, the other has little or no support for society well being. Which is worse to struggle with? Keep in mind that lack of social well being is not abstract, it means quite literally there are people who want to, and will, make you suffer so they can make a profit. They may not take the food physically out of your hand, but using policy, politics and law, they ultimately will accomplish the same thing for their own benefit. This is the consequence of a ungoverned free market – what we now have.
Unfortunately, the US has become like an emotionally imbalanced teenager. There is a sense of pride followed by a rise of power and self-narcisism leading to a critical, dangerous moment, followed by a crash and release. In the later reflection some lessons are learned but ultimately the cycle will occur again as another person, group, political party, or generation fills that same role. How we teach our children to deal with life, with media, with television and culture – it matters.
How can I protect myself, how can I live a happy life?
The best answer I’ve found for this is to find points of stability in ones’ life. This starts by realizing that, as an American, almost everything you own or have is non-stable. Certainly credit cards, loans, mortgage, stocks, are unstable. Pay these back as quickly as possible. Even things like education, work and children are non-stable. Did you know the last US Debt Ceiling bill eliminates subsidized loans for graduate students? These are loans whose interest rates are not charged while you are in school. All graduate students will now be charged interest during their entire time in school, in addition to the 35% or more rise in tuition experienced in some states. This does not mean you should avoid school, just be clear you understand the real costs of your education, your student loan obligations, and how likely you are to repay them given your career choices. Stability does not mean avoidance of debt, it means responsible, calculated debt.
In the US, people who have more than you will make your life harder. The way to escape this situation is either to find your own sense of stability, or to try another country. In the past, protests were one way to combat this. Protests now are a comedic reference to real protests of past generations, because they are nothing more that pep rallies – few are willing to put their own personal lives at stake for an abstract fight. It is only when we realize, as a society, that justifying personal wealth at the expense of moral social obligations is equivalent to violence, that such efforts will be worth while. Enough people must be at personal, physical risk, for a protest to be effective for real change.
Stability comes from things which are both tangible and intangible, which are difficult for others to affect. Family is one, but notice that having children can create a sense of concern for the future. A house is a symbol of stability, and a grounding point, assuming you own it outright. The best advice to give is: Being American means you must be ready to buffet and respond to the emotional ups-and-downs of the childish, often disasterous, moral decisions of others. Do Americans deserve a better, more responbile government? Yes. Can we demand it? Yes. Are we like to get it based on current views of the individual? Not necessarily.
The best one can hope for is to live a life in which the turmoils, troubles, and disasters of politics and the financial markets are witnessed from a distance. This can be difficult when their decisions affect your job, house, expenses, or other lifestyle aspects personally. The challenge is to perpetually find new stable points. To seek ways to have control over your own destiny, and to do so without harming others. Pay off debts. Get an education, but be prepared for student loans. Buy a house, but only if you know you will live in, be present there, and make it a home indefinitely. Work a job, but be aware that the value of your job may change dramatically in any year. No careers have lifetime guarantees. Have a backup plan. The most unique American quality is the ability to adapt, change, and overcome circumstances. The way to find stability, for an American, is to realize that ones’ ability to rise to any challenge, to resolve it, allows us to continue. It is not as safe or perhaps friendly as having a community and government you know you can trust, it is just a different social model.
From the 1980s onward, great increases in wealth created by the founding generations of this country allowed a growing number of their children to live without effort — that is, devoid of any real personal effort. For a while, life was easy, too easy. Devoid of any sense of emotional responsibility to others, or sense of moral responsibility to make sure ones happiness does not come at another’s expense. Many of these people now control our schools, our companies and our government. Our country is in need of help. But since adults are no longer children, in general those who openly act against the good of the nation, who do not think about how their greed affects the balance of a community or an entire nation, must be replaced.
I personally wish that the US had a stronger moral and social foundation (no, not socialist). Legally and politically, everything points toward an increasing gap between wealthy and poor. Either the wealthy, or their children, ultimately calm down and accept the value to the nation of being open and generous, or the poor are willing to give their lives (quite literally, nothing less is strong enough) to force them to. Nothing less can stop the pattern of emotional ups-and-downs that result from greed at the expense of others.
Is it possible to live outside this emotional cycle. Yes, there are many places in the world to live. Each one is quite unique. None is perfect, of course, but it is a matter of personal choice which social model you choose to live under. Whichever society you live in, it is a personal choice to act kindly and responsible toward others, to use only what you need, to evaluate the impact of your choices on others, and to live within ones means.