Sunday, March 05, 2006

The recent Pew Research Center Social Trends Report “Are We Happy Yet?” is a sad comment on the state of happiness if ever there was one, full of specious correlations between quantifiable data like income, party affiliation, and church attendance, and an indefinable, unquantifiable and necessarily impermanent emotional state, elucidation of which has traditionally been the province of poets and philosophers, not pollsters and politicians. Of course, what really got my attention (and, yes, my goat, too) was the much ballyhooed “finding” that Republicans are happier by far than their foes. Yes, they’ve won the ultimate victory. It’s official: it’s a rout. Looks like the GOP’s the only disco in town now. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not quite ready to join the Stepford Republicans smiling so vehemently their faces twitch and so spitefully their clenched teeth crack. If this is happiness, I’d rather cry in my beer with the losers, thanks. Seems like more fun, frankly.

I don’t put much stock in polls myself. Remember that politeness poll that found that Americans believe poor manners are increasing, yet 80 percent rated their own as "excellent”? Mm-hmm. There’s a larger question here about scientific inquiry into our conscious experience of, reflection on, and ways of communicating subjective, emotional states. Multiple choice leaves something to be desired. The very nature of a poll tells us our answers will be compared to others’, implying our internal states are somehow comparative, too. Savvy as we are at taking polls, we want to be on the “right” side when the data are compiled. Even if we have to exaggerate a bit. Let’s take church attendance. The Christian Century Foundation found that “actual church attendance was about half the rate indicated by national public opinion polls.” According to them, “most overreporting occurs among those who consider themselves to be regular church attenders,” but in reality are not. They’d like to be, or imagine they should be, or don’t want to be classed with those who aren’t. Are you happy? Is this a trick question?

The dating website offers a pretty typical “PhD Certified” Happiness Test. I don’t think of myself as a gloomy gus, but I’m no grinning fool. I figured I’d see how happy I really was, according to the pollsters. The test was True/False. Number one: “I feel my life is on the right track.” That’s where the trouble began. I mean, say I don’t see my life on a track at all. What am I, a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit? A thoroughbred in blinders or a locomotive racing against the clock? Even if you see life as a journey along a path, say you’re an ambler. Sometimes on the path, sometimes off it. Say you are the path. What if happiness is “off the charts” for you? What do the pollsters have to say about that? None of which is to say that Republicans don’t think they’re perfectly happy on their own hedonic treadmill. Maybe the rest of us are just thinking outside of the box.


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