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Social Mobility Memos

America: Divided In the Pursuit Of Happiness

The United States is a nation fractured along lines of class, income, education, race, wealth and health; but it is also divided in terms of stress and happiness. Quality of life is not only about material goods, but the space and opportunity to be happy.

Googling Future Inequality

The divide in the concerns of those in the toughest circumstances and those in the most comfortable was highlighted by a recent analysis of google searches for the New York Times’ Upshot. The searches that correlated most closely with difficult circumstances were related to diets, diabetes, guns and religion (especially the dark side of religion e.g., ‘hell’ and ‘antichrist’). In the most privileged areas, searches related to the latest technology, health and parenting: e.g., ‘ipad’, ‘jogger’ and ‘baby massage’.

Gaps in Happiness and Stress

There is another inequality, too, that reflects and reinforces the others: in happiness and optimism about the future. My research – in the U.S. and beyond – shows that individuals with prospects for upward mobility are happier and more likely to invest in their future health and education (and those of their children). When queried about well-being, the rich highlight the role of work and good health in their lives, while poor people are more likely to focus on friends and religion, in part as vital forms of social insurance. Steady, fulfilling work and good health allow those with means to make choices and live the kinds of lives they want to lead. Those without means often face stressful and difficult daily lives, resulting in short-sighted and risk-averse decision-making.  

Well-being scores highlight the different outlooks of the two Americas. The poorest respondents experience significantly higher levels of stress in their daily lives than do those in higher ones. Respondents in the top quintile report higher scores when asked about satisfaction with their lives as a whole, a metric which captures peoples’ ability to make choices and control their lives. 

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Controlling Your Destiny = The American Dream

The proportion of Americans who think people who work hard can get ahead has fallen in the past decade, according to Pew.

The ability of the poor to climb the income ladder could diminish further if confidence in that dream is lost. The American public has had a remarkable tolerance for increasing income inequality. Perhaps awareness of happiness inequality will stir things up?

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