Psychology Today: we are more unhappy even as we have attained the American Dream in the suburbs

The latest issue of Psychology Today (March/April 2011, not yet available online) features a story about unhappiness and the American Dream. One researcher of economics and happiness says, “The U.S.A. has, in aggregate, apparently become more miserable over the last quarter of a century.” The basic premise is this: we have gained what the American Dream promised, families, home ownership, levels of luxury, and yet we are more unhappy than ever. Why is this the case?

The article goes on to cite a number of problems: having more public activities moved inside the home and limited contact with the broader communities (with home churches, homeschooling, and working from home cited as examples); an overemphasis on children who end up dominating the lives of their parents; moving to the suburbs; and we unrealistically dream of fulfillment that is said to come with marriage, having children, and growing older.

I’ll quickly tackle the suburbs issue here. The bulk of this section cites the 2000 book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, a classic New Urbanist text. In short, the New Urbanists argue that suburban neighborhoods emphasize individualism and simply bigger homes, not community, leading to an impoverished public realm. Through the redesign of neighborhoods, such as including porches on the front of houses, moving garages to back alleys, and having a coherent sense of architecture across buildings, community life can be encouraged. The author of this article suggests there is a “disconnect between ‘suburban expectation…and the blighted reality of sprawl.”

This is not a new argument about the suburbs: indeed, critics were saying similar things back in the 1920s and 1950s during the early waves of American suburbanization. This article also trades in typical arguments: “And those parents who live in a cul-de-sac just a highway exit or two from a strip mall might be the first to admit they’re experiencing an American dream that may be less Norman Rockwell than Revolutionary Road.” One question could be raised about this section on suburbs: is it the suburbs themselves that are causing the problem (the actual physical design and layout) or the expectations that come with them? Since the early 1900s, Americans have moved to the suburbs partly to avoid the city. While the suburban lifestyle certainly has faults, would Americans choose to leave the suburbs and move elsewhere? New Urbanists offer an interesting alternative: maintaining single-family home but having denser suburbs which would hopefully have richer community interaction. Interestingly, this article does not call for people to leave the suburbs but perhaps to adjust their expectations about what the suburbs can actually offer.

More broadly, the article sets this up as an issue of out-sized expectations. The American Dream offers much but also seems to leave people wanting more and more. How about a slightly different question: is the end goal of adult life happiness and/or satisfaction? One way to deal with the issue of the American Dream would be to scale back our expectations so we are more satisfied with what we have. Another way to deal with the issue is to wonder if pleasure (measured as happiness or satisfaction) is the ultimate goal in life.

(A note about Psychology Today: I am not a regular reader so my observation may be silly or obvious. But this article, and a few others I flipped through, were quite “pop” and short on academic analysis.)

The importance of having meaningful work

Recent research suggests that the satisfaction individuals derive from work is not based just on a paycheck but rather on the meaning found in even doing menial tasks:

In several recent studies, social scientists have zeroed in on why paychecks alone can’t explain the link between work and well-being. The evidence shows that people can find meaning in seemingly insignificant jobs and that even trivial tasks make us far happier than no tasks at all.

“We become very dedicated to things it would be hard to be dedicated to if we were perfectly rational,” says behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, author of “The Upside of Irrationality,” published in June. “It turns out you can give people lots of meaning in lots of ways, even small ones.”…

The findings suggest that, although people often yield to idleness, deep down they seek excuses to stay busy, because busyness is happiness. However much Sisyphus rued his meaningless job, the authors conclude, he would have been even more miserable with no job at all.

Interesting findings that would have profound implications for the workplace.

Some quick questions:

1. Do these researchers argue that these benefits of working are linked to human nature or is it a conditioned response based on culture and other factors?

2. What are the long-term consequences of people having no work? If work is meaningful, what happens if people cannot work for different reasons (health, unemployment, other possibilities)?

3. How many workplaces (or what percentage) explicitly talk to employees about the meaningfulness of their individual work?