If America Is “The Land of Opportunity” Why Are We the Unhappiest We’ve Ever Been?
According to Fortune Magazine and the 2019 World Happiness Report, people in the United States are the unhappiest they have ever been. Which is sad, considering we are a leading first world country and that our standard of living is pretty darned high. So, if worldwide we are all more developed than ever before, and if the American Dream is still alive and well, why does the U.S. suffer from an epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence? And more importantly, in the wake of Dayton, Ohio, El Paso, Texas and Gilroy, California, is there anything we can do about it?
Since we appear to be deadlocked over our second amendment rights, gun control and access to mental health care, are there any other contributing factors to mass shootings that we might be able to address and find some common ground?
False Expectations and Reasons Why Gun Violence Is Strictly a U.S. Epidemic
I recently read a Los Angeles Times article that claimed that the gap between a person’s expectations and their actual achievement was one of the reasons why the U.S. had more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world. Because the U.S. is seen as the “The Land of Opportunity,” our cultural belief is that we are capable of achieving anything we want, if only we work hard enough. The darker side of that coin is that if we fail to achieve whatever it is we want, we are losers. We are lazy, unworthy, stupid, or somehow bad or wrong.
The article talked about American Exceptionalism and how young adults in the US had high expectations for their future. All of them believed that they would do better than their parents, and that they had what it took to lead successful, happy and prosperous lives. Many of them also believed that they would be famous or very well-known due to their accomplishments. In fact, one study even called American Teenagers “absurdly ambitious.”
This is in stark contrast to the beliefs of young adults in every other industrialized country in the world. In other industrialized countries teenagers believe that they will spend their life fighting poverty, that at some point they will become ill, that they will face war or extreme political conflict, and that career satisfaction is not highly realistic or necessary. And although very few believed that they would be famous or well-known for their accomplishments, the overall life-happiness rating in these countries was higher than that of the U.S.
The unrealistic expectations of what one’s life should be like results in feelings of extreme failure and disillusionment, causing a myriad of psychological problems, including the need for some to commit mass murders as an outlet of their feelings of disillusionment, shame, and maybe even as a path to fame.
Happily Ever After in America
It reminds me of advice I was given by an elderly member of my church when I was newly married. Quite shockingly, she told me that marriage was about learning how to be miserable.
She told me that it was alright to enjoy the good times, but to always remember that the vast majority of my days were going to be mediocre (sometimes even downright miserable) and that was normal.
She warned that fights would not always be resolved by bedtime and that there would be days, weeks, months or maybe even years where my spouse and I wouldn’t see eye to eye or even like each other very much. It didn’t mean it was over or that we had fallen out of love, it meant that we were normal humans sharing a normal life. And because of the challenge inevitable in anyone’s life, the good parts would be all the sweeter.
At the time I thought she was crazy, but in hindsight, I probably stayed married because of that advice. I didn’t freak out during the weeks and months of being disgusted and irritated because I expected it and knew it was normal.
What would it be like if Americans knew that they may very well spend their entire life smack-dab in the middle of the “land of opportunity” fighting to achieve the “American Dream” but might never make it? And that it was normal. What if we expected to face depression and frustration and knew that we would sometimes hate our job, be treated unfairly, or not know what to do with our kids or aging parents?
Is it Realistic and Healthy to be Cynical?
Perhaps we’d all be happier and healthier if we knew that we weren’t exceptional. If we knew that our country had issues and problems just like every other country on the planet. Wouldn’t it be easier to know what to expect? That life is really hard, that we will fail more often that we think we should and that many unfair, unexpected and unhappy things will happen to us. And that it’s normal. Because we are human, and that’s life.
I know I’d be happier if I knew what to expect.