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We are chatting with six students and a few other friends. The room is pretty typical for student housing in the US, so we all feel right at home, despite the fact that we are in Central America. It’s day two of an International Studies trip, and we are having a discussion that was in some ways the genesis of this entire writing project.
Two students have been assigned to brief us on Costa Rica and they are covering all the bases: population, climate, financial system, education, and so forth. Most of the students arrived with a fair idea of what to expect and so far it’s all gone according to plan. Then I pose the question I have been anticipating since we first scheduled the trip. It goes something like this:
“Help me understand this. The average Costa Rican earns one-fourth as much as the average American. He lives in a smaller houses, owns no car, and has limited access to medical care. Despite all this, his life expectancy is virtually the same as ours, and according to the 2015 World Happiness Report (yes, that is a thing), Costa Rica ranks….higher…than the US.” Blank stares around the room as they try to process this.
I plow ahead. “In other words, the average person walking by this house right now is happier than the average person sitting in your classes back in Abilene.” We go on to digest this data, and to discuss whether moving to Central America might be the most rational choice they could make. The students conclude it’s probably not. My wife is still considering it.
The rest of our trip is viewed through this lens. The students talk to more ‘poor’ people in three weeks than most of them have met in their entire lives, and for a few days they are confronted with the reality behind the illusion: many Americans have numerous goods in their lives, but don’t feel like they have good lives. Despite the wealth and status and control and freedom, they struggle to find the things that they want more than anything else: happiness, contentment, and joy, while all around them, nations with far less seem to enjoy life far more. This was not the first time I had explored this idea of where happiness originates, but it was a few months after we returned home that I began this writing project.
America is a strikingly individualistic nation. This means that we tend to want our own rooms, our own cars, and our own menus at dinner. We idolize superstars over great teams. We prefer go-it-alone leaders to those who collaborate (I’m editing this the morning after an election in which “Stronger Together” was unceremoniously obliterated by “I alone can fix it”), and we tend to believe that if someone is having a rough time in life it’s probably that person’s own fault for not working hard enough. We are the proud heirs of John Wayne and Frank “I did it my way” Sinatra and a hundred other swaggering manly men who took control and lifted themselves to greatness by their own bootstraps. I don’t know exactly where my home state of Texas would score on this scale but the unofficial motto down here is “Don’t mess with Texas” so draw your own conclusions.
The US is not just high on the individualism scale, we are sky-high, as in so high the elevator barely makes it all the way up here; of the 200 countries in the world, we are number one(!) with a score of 91. For comparison, the French score 71, Austria comes in at 55, and Mexico posts a 30. So what about Costa Rica, the place where we had this conversation, the place where people are happier than in the US? Costa Rica scores 15.
On some level I think Americans know that we are solo performers. We are proud of that and sort of humble-brag, “Aw shucks, I had a lot of help becoming an incredible, phenomenal, successful winner,” when we are really pretty sure we got where we are through sheer grit and determination and hard work. This lens impacts our lives in numerous ways we can’t fully comprehend, and in at least one way we can: it makes us less happy.
In 2009, researcher Joan Chiao and her colleagues published a study focusing on this “me-centric” perspective on life, which she neatly defines this way: “People from highly individualistic cultures like the United States and Western Europe are more likely to value uniqueness over harmony, expression over agreement, and to define themselves as unique or different from the group.” Her findings are simple but profound: the more individualistic your nation is, the more likely you are to suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression, while a more collectivist (team-oriented) perspective on life seems to protect people from these outcomes. Ironically, the richest, most developed nations tend to be the most individualistic, which means we may have gotten the gold, but wound up miserable about it. It also means that the rising risks of anxiety and depression may be the ‘altitude sickness’ that is inherent in the climb to a more developed society.
Why does this happen? Individualism tends to short-circuit one of the major keys to happiness (what I sometimes refer to as ‘the three pillars’) by curtailing our connections to others. Individualists prefer to define themselves by how they are unlike (usually superior to) others, not how they are similar. Ironically, individualism can be a major contributor to a nation’s prosperity, but it can ultimately lead to decline, since most of the great achievements of men and nations are gained by teams, not individuals. At a minimum it can produce a nation of rich, successful, selfish, miserable people.
One final irony. Last year, “can do” Americans spent over a billion dollars on self-improvement books, which neatly cater to our solo approach to everything. Maybe we need fewer books and more connections. Maybe we need to enjoy a nice serving of humble pie and admit that folks in “backward” nations are kicking our butts at things that truly matter in life. We could start by investing a little time or effort in calling an old friend, or (horrors) asking someone for help, or just being present for someone else, or giving someone else the gift of connection, which will actually help us both.
But be careful; that’s not how John Wayne would have done it.
Coming next time: The holidays are here. How many Christmas gifts does it take to make a child happy?
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