There’s a question that deserves to be thought about — which we don’t consider often enough. It’s a simple one. Why are Europeans so much happier than Americans?
Why Are Europeans (So Much) Happier Than Americans?
What Makes a Society a Genuinely Happy Place — and How America Got it Wrong
There’s a question that deserves to be thought about — which we don’t consider often enough. It’s a simple one. Why are Europeans so much happier than Americans? Or, conversely, why are Europeans the happiest people in the world…in human history?
Some caveats. Sure, I generalize. Not every European is happy. And by happiness I don’t mean simple consumerist pleasure. Nor is every American unhappy.
And yet the proof’s in the pudding. European societies, by and large, are astoundingly happy places. They’ve been rocked by the tides of extremism, sweeping the globe, sure — nobody is saying they’re perfect or pure, romanticizing or idealizing them. In contrast, Americans are so unhappy that suicide is skyrocketing, depression is soaring, rage is endemic, and the general atmosphere of society veers grimly between a kind of bitter despair and a black nihilism.
Now, one answer to my question is obvious: social democracy. Europeans enjoy generous public goods — public healthcare, retirement, education, high speed rail, and so forth. And so they don’t live the lives of bruising, battering, endless — and pointless — competition that Americans do. Americans work until their dying days now — the average American dies in debt. Europeans, in contrast, simply gave each other the very things Americans forced one another to compete for — healthcare, retirement, and so on. The stakes in American life are therefore life and death, every single day — lost that job? Bang! You’re dead. European life is gentler — because social democracy is fundamentally more humane.
But I want to go a little deeper. What is it that moves societies in a socially democratic direction? What lights the spark of social democracy?
I’ve come to see that Europeans have much — much — more human contact than Americans do. They are much less isolated — but they are also able to be together not just more, but in better ways. The contact that they have with one another is fundamentally different, of a far richer and and more substantial and fundamental kind, too. Let me explain.
When I get on an elevator in Paris, with perfect strangers, everybody says hello and goodbye. It’d be rude not to. Americans stare blankly at the doors. It’d be rude not to. In Barcelona, when you’re introduced to someone, you greet them with hugs and kisses. Old friends embrace for a long moment — even if they’ve just seen another yesterday. In America, we give each other a polite handshake — if that. It’s not just “warm cultures”, as the sociologists say: even in staid Germany or fusty Holland or cold Scandinavia, the American stereotype is wrong: far from being unfeeling, long, passionate, sophisticated discussions and interactions will ensue at the drop of a hat.
(What do we Americans do? We are always working. Working away in solitude. Not just on our jobs. But at our lives. We are always “working out.” We are always getting thinner, more ripped, prettier, richer, more popular, more famous. We’re always and forever working and working away, with a grim, determined grin. Our fun is work, our relationships our work, dating is work, friendship is “friending”…and then there’s “real work”. Life itself has become a kind of capitalist project for us, endless labour to produce the perfect self — and that way stand atop everyone else. But what’s the point? We’re not a nation of happy people. Happiness as a hyperindividualistic quest to become the perfect, prettiest, richest, uberperson hasn’t worked, self-evidently. Yet we are not content — ever — just to be. You probably read that and wondered what the hell I meant. “Just to be?”)
So what am I talking about? Physical intimacy? Leisure time? Am I saying that hugs and kisses light the way to social democracy? I think that there is a fundamentally different range of human behavior, emotion, action, a whole way of living, that’s permissible in Europe. Let me put it this way.
In America, social relations have been alienated and commodified — to use two heavy-duty terms beloved of European thinkers, beginning from Marx onwards. How do Americans relate to each other? The first question, inevitably, is “what do you do?”, followed quickly by “where are you (really) from?” We’re trying to place the other person on our little ladder of status, our mental model of social structural power. Are you a doctor? Are you from Minnesota? Are you a taxi driver? Are you from the Congo? And so on.
Now, if I asked these question at my local dog park in London — or the one in Paris or Nice or Berlin or Barcelona — people would pretty quickly roll their eyes, stop talking to me, and avoid me whenever they could. They’d see me as a kind of gross simpleton, someone best not associated with. But why? What unsaid social norms have I violated?
I’ve violated the norms of equality and dignity. It doesn’t matter what the other person does. Not in this space. In this park, cafe, bar, restaurant, square. Here, we are equals. True and genuine equals. We are going to step outside whatever superficial roles we have been given by this or that organization or system. We are going to relate as equals. You are a titan of industry. I’m a humble worker. You’re a brainiac scientist. I’m a simple teacher. We are just two people walking our dogs. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Here and now, we are human. Just human.
So what can we talk about? How are you feeling today? Oh, my mother is ill. My friend isn’t doing too well. Ah, midlife — such a strange time! We can talk about anything and everything — that matters. Feelings, emotions, memories, time, dust. The meanings of our lives — what little triumphs we have had, and what mistakes and failures we have made. Ah! I was such a fool. Laughter echoes around the group of friends.
It’s a totally — totally — different way of relating to each other than we have as Americans. In these shared spaces of equality and dignity, human vulnerability emerges. It is seen, held, known. That is what is truly shared. The ache, the longing, the despair, the grief — of just existing. Maybe that sounds melodramatic to you. It doesn’t happen in simplistic ways. A word, a look, a little gaze at the old withered tree. Life goes on. But it’s never easy.
Europe is more alive than America — in these very concrete terms. People are more alive. Life is more lively. There is more life to be lived there. That is because I have more to live — I am not just a consumer, producer, competitor. I am a human being, first — and so are you. Just being is OK — in fact, crucial, vital, necessary.
And a kind of magic, I’ve come to understand, happens as a result of this expansive approach to life, this aliveness. The norms of equality and dignity are, as social thinkers would say, “reproduced.” In plainer English: equality and dignity and nourished, maintained, sustained. People are able to relate to one another as true equals, with equivalent levels of dignity. They understand that everyone — everyone — undergoes the same things in a life, and they are just a few things, when they’re boiled down, distilled. Birth, love, struggle, age, time, death, dust. Life itself comes to be a much, much bigger thing than we Americans grant ourselves the power to enact, express, live.
I’ve come to think that all this is what underpins social democracy. These attitudes of equality and dignity, which are so firmly, gently, and beautifully woven carefully and delicately into not just the European project, but European culture, attitudes, values, norms. That sense of aliveness.
Now, in America, we don’t have those norms. We have two forces that have produced just the opposite: capitalism and supremacy. We have centuries of slavery and segregation, and we have centuries of capitalism — so much so that they’re indistinguishable. Which one was it when buying and selling people underpinned the American economy, and brought it to power?
Capitalism and supremacy have made it impossible for us to relate to one another as equals, with shared dignity. So, instead, every conversation begins with: “what do you do”, followed by, “where are you (really) from?” We’re asking: where do you sit on two hierarchies, two ladders. One, capitalism’s ladder of money, and two, whiteness’s ladder of purity. Together, we can quickly assess someone’s status — their utility, their usefulness to us.
You’re (just) a Mexican worker? You’re no good to me, goodbye. You’re a twenty something white “CEO”? Here’s my card…call me! We can only relate to each other as producer and consumers — or as competitors, as predator and prey. We’ve internalized relating to one another mostly as economic entities, or as objects and subjects of power. We are always trying to establish vertical social relations — me above you, not me beside you — but Europeans establish horizontal ones, to put it technically. But happiness comes from the latter, not the former.
That is what our history has limited us to. Can we change it? Can we have a social democracy without changing it? But what room do we really have in America to be human, to relate to one another as human beings first — and producers and consumers, or worse, competitiors, last, if at all?
Those gentle, beautiful norms of equality and dignity that are so European, though, matter in a way that we haven’t yet understood at all. “Horizontal social relations.” What does it really mean?
What happens when I’m in the dog park, and there is a person next to me — but we are not allowed to relate to each other as mere economic entities, or objects of power, when that’s the one thing that we mustn’t ever, ever do? Ah. Then there is a friend beside me. Then there is someone who is just like me. Who is a mirror image of my own fragile, haunted, wounded self. Birth, struggle, love, age, time, death, dust. My life is their life. We are just two friends, in this little patch of green, on a speck of blue, hurtling through the endless darkness. We’re just two people walking our dogs. We’re just two wanderers in the same desert, seeking the same ocean.
What do I “get”? I get — as I give — consolation. Empathy. Grace. Defiance. Truth. Meaning. Strength. Courage. My vulnerability is theirs, and theirs is mine. We are seeing, holding, knowing one another. Just in little, tiny, infinitesimal ways. But those tiny ways, enacted every day, added up over millions of people — they make a society a thing pulsing with happiness. The real thing. Because happiness, my friends, is not what we Americans think: either the quest for more, or the relief from its incessant pain and trauma.
It is just the feeling, as Camus said, of having a friend beside you. Knowing that this strange, impossible path you are are on — birth, struggle, love, time, death, dust — too produces its own rewards. They are evanescent as seasons, it’s true. But there they are — waiting to be caught, every single day. Yet only in the act of just being with another, one just like you, a fragile, finite thing, are those rewards had. Not competing with them. Not trying to outdo them, vanquish them, batter them, conquer them. Just being with them. Just seeing them, as they see you, each’s vulnerability struggling to be held by the other’s fragility. I see you. Do you see me? I reveal myself. Do you reveal you? Can a society work best any other way? I am alive most, and most alive, in these moments.
Maybe it is hugs and kisses that make better worlds. By making people who are gentle and strong enough to stand right next to one another, to be close, even in all life’s fragility, fear, and despair. Maybe we Americans — just like the Romans — are the ones who never understood enough about life to make a society worthy of the name, only an empire. As my friends in Spain say — Abrazos. Hugs.
この記事で Happier だと言われている「ヨーロッパ」は、貧富の差が少ない。
それに対し Unhappier だと言われている「アメリカ」は、貧富の差が多い。
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