I met Piedmonter Freda Zeitlow at a lovely event she organized last spring for a group of professional women. Over a delicious lunch, Freda gave a thought-provoking talk about happiness, specifically about the ‘U-curve’ theory of lifelong satisfaction.
The pattern, confirmed over the past decade in dozens of international studies, shows that most peoples’ happiness and life satisfaction over time follows a ‘U’ shaped curve. In childhood, people generally report being very happy, but happiness and contentment begin to fall in the teenage years. Happiness hits a low point somewhere in middle age, but begins to climb again in the last few decades of life. So a 65 year old might feel as happy as she was at 25, a 75 year old as joyful as a teenager. This U-shaped curve remains when you control for factors such as physical health, income, number of children, marital status, and education.
I’ll admit it. I was a major grump when Pokémon Go exploded onto the scene in early July. The graphics confused me, hearing the word “Jigglypuff” during bathing suit season made me sad, it was draining all our data, and I read that hapless hunters were being lured into unpopulated areas and getting mugged. Plus like all the other moms in the universe, I feel under constant siege by Phones and Snapchat and YouTube and all the other iThings that have sapped the ability of everyone under 18 to look anyone in the eye.
What is it about human nature that compels us to see every issue as a zero-sum game? The most demoralizing example of this phenomenon is on display this week. Angry partisans have staked out unenlightened corners of the internet, convinced of an inherent conflict between renouncing senseless violence at the hands of the police and renouncing senseless violence toward the police. You’re either “pro-law enforcement” and “anti-#blacklivesmatter” or the reverse. And if you’re not on ‘my’ side, you’re a barely human, simpering excuse for a misinformed Neanderthal.
I’ve always been a sucker for the overly simplistic dichotomy. Lover or fighter? Boxers or briefs? Fox or Hedgehog? An all-time favorite is the exercise of declaring people and their life philosophies either optimists or pessimists: is someone a ‘glass half full-er’ or ‘glass half empty-er’?
Cut to a couple of days ago. I was pondering why Piedmont’s July 4th celebration is so profoundly moving and absurdly sweet. Beyond the toddlers in their red-white-and-blue Baby Gap finest and those strangely compelling inner tube sailor dudes, there’s the sheer hubris of throwing an exuberant, raucous birthday party for a nation that we’re all quite happy to gripe about throughout the other 364 days of the year. What’s up? The juxtaposition of criticism and celebration doesn’t cause us a bit of confusion, because we’re convinced there’s a reason to celebrate. Our country, despite its flaws, is the best one out there, and we’re all going to make it better. Here’s the thing: Americans are nothing if not optimistic.