I am becoming a misanthrope, I declared recently — and publicly — on Facebook.
Grouchy, frustrated and restless are all words I could use to describe my recent mindset, were anyone foolish enough to brave the chance I’d snap at them by asking how I feel.
It appears I am in very good company, at least according to a new survey that suggests Americans are less happy than they’ve been in nearly a half century, based on survey data analyzed by the University of Chicago. The most recent set of questions was asked a couple of weeks ago, then compared against the General Social Survey results going back to 1972.
According to The Associated Press report on the findings, we have a less sunny view of the future. We’re more lonely than we were even as recently as 2018. And — this one is seriously not surprising in light of recent events — we are less satisfied with our social activities.
I had to wonder, what social activities? Since March, I’ve worked and played within a minuscule circle of people. And even at the grocery store, I’ve bobbed and weaved to avoid unnecessary interaction.
So my first thought was that it’s no surprise the recent pandemic, the national protests and — for those of us in Utah — the earthquake in March have combined to create some restlessness and worry that could spill over into one’s sense of well-being and happiness.
But here’s the thing: Most of the unhappy people that I know were actually unhappy before any of those things occurred. And some of the happiest people I know have been pretty happy in spite of those events. Truth be told, I was getting grouchy, frustrated and restless before social distancing was a societal mandate, too.
So what’s the deal?
I think a lot can be explained by two specific examples of human behavior.
I recently interviewed Rayna and Justin Christensen, a couple from Grantsville, Utah. Justin spent two months in an intensive care unit at University of Utah Hospital battling a truly excruciating case of COVID-19 that he very nearly didn’t survive. When Rayna posted on Facebook that her little family, which includes four kids, needed prayers, many people responded with love and kindness and offered support. And some didn’t. One guy accused her of making up her husband’s illness.
That’s not the action or response of a happy person. Someone whose life is going well or who feels good about himself doesn’t need to go to extreme measures to make others miserable; it’s a genuinely miserable thing to do.
And that got me thinking about the people I know who really are happy, like Paul at the convenience store near my house. Or my friend Kerry. Or my longtime buddy Steve.
Paul is so upbeat and cheerful that his good mood can actually change the trajectory of my day, if it’s going wrong. Kerry is helpful and kind and I know for a fact he’s the first guy to help his neighbors when their car needs jump starting or someone’s loading heavy items in their car on a shopping trip. And Steve? He’s the kind of guy who fixes your beat up old car when you’re off caring for your mother who’s been ill, because he happens to have that skill and you have that need.
My dad was a genuinely happy person — and his life was sometimes very hard. But he was grateful for his blessings and supremely aware of other people’s needs.
Job loss, injustice, illness — many things can make one unhappy for a while. But you cannot be happy if you are all you care about.
I have allowed myself to forget that I have been the happiest in my own life when my focus is not on my own happiness, but on what’s going on in others’ lives and whether they have rocks in their backpack that I can carry for them at least briefly.
I’m feeling better already.