We Have Better Convenience Stores, That's Why

Americans work hard. We take fewer vacations than Europeans, and we retire later.  But guess who's happier?

Americans tend to score better than Europeans on most happiness surveys. For example, according to the 2002 International Social Survey Programme across 35 countries, 56% of Americans are "completely happy" or "very happy" with their lives, versus 44% of Danes (often cited in surveys as the happiest Europeans), 35% of the French and 31% of Germans.

 From AEI via Greg Mankiw.

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I tend to doubt most general quality-of-life comparisons of the United States with Europe on various grounds: subjectivity, clear bias in carefully pre-selecting elements which favor one or the other, vagueness, ideological or other pre-judgment and spin, anecdotal nature, second-handedness*, and so on, not all at once of course but in various combinations.

*Second-handedness: I sometimes encounter long lectures on the problems of America obviously written by people who clearly know about the US only what they have learned about it from American television or, worse, from the "news". This is that same "news" which only ever mentions towns familiar to me if there has recently been a horrific traffic accident, a missing child, a tragic fire, or a brutal murder and which therefore can be relied upon to severely misguide the viewer or reader or listener who is otherwise unfamiliar with the towns as to the true general quality of life in any of these towns. Misguide the consumer of the news only if, of course, that consumer fails to understand the nature of the news he is consuming. If on the other hand, he understands its nature, then he is no longer misguided, but he is instead left about as uninformed as he had been before consuming that news.

My problem with this particular comparison you bring up is that it raises more questions than it answers. Do Americans simply have lowered expectations? Are Europeans dissatisfied because there are so many opportunities open to them that when they compare the wonders of this evening with the even greater wonders they will encounter tomorrow morning in the European Utopia, their impatience renders them eternally dissatisfied with the present moment? Is there some element in American culture which causes Americans to be happy and optimistic whatever the objective conditions, and if so is this quirk of our culture really any solid basis for self-congratulation? Are Europeans unhappy because they cannot stop thinking about the deaths occurring in Darfur, and is American happiness a function of their callous and stupid indifference to the suffering that goes on every day in the rest of the world?

Et cetera.

Which is not to say that I reject it. Only that I have doubts which I am unable to shake. For what little it's worth, my own personal feeling (which I acknowledge is severely limited by my superficial experiences elsewhere) is that America is a wonderful place to live in comparison to most though not all other place that I have ever been to.