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Collectively, Are We Still Happy in a Depression?

Sonja Lyubomirsky thinks so.

Or at least that seems to be her argument in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, where she suggests that people (What people? Most people? Her friends? She doesn’t say…) aren’t panicking due to the depression/recession that we’re in. That most people aren’t really that unhappy in these difficult economic times.

Of course, I have to raise an eyebrow whenever a commentator makes a claim such as this which goes against conventional wisdom and is supported by zero evidence.

Instead, she cites research into our individual happiness, which says nothing about society’s collective happiness in tough economic times such as these:

Research in psychology and economics suggests that when only your salary is cut, or when only you make a foolish investment, or when only you lose your job, you become considerably less satisfied with your life. But when everyone from autoworkers to Wall Street financiers becomes worse off, your life satisfaction remains pretty much the same.

Indeed, humans are remarkably attuned to relative position and status. As the economists David Hemenway and Sara Solnick demonstrated in a study at Harvard, many people would prefer to receive an annual salary of $50,000 when others are making $25,000 than to earn $100,000 a year when others are making $200,000.

Which is true, individually. But really has little to do with providing any evidence that indeed we’re all still collectively “happy” when we’re losing our jobs, explaining to our children why Santa had to cut way back this year, and why we might lose our house (or have already been kicked out). Does the author honestly think the tens of thousands of people who have lost their homes are comforted by the fact that Jay Leno might have to forgo buying his 81st car?

While people are attuned to their rank in the pecking order, such rank becomes meaningless across socioeconomic groups. The key is that we are most sensitive to our rank within our “peer group,” meaning, people like us. And while we might feel like we’re not doing too badly if we can afford our current home’s mortgage, I suspect most of us would feel immediately unhappy if we lost our homes (even if everyone else in our subdivision was also losing their home), shelter being one of the basic human needs.

I don’t think “we’re still happy.” I think we’re trying to make the best of a horrible situation that very few people understand, much as Americans did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. We pull together when we’re kicked down, and American optimism finds a way to shine through. But I wouldn’t equate such optimism with being happy.

Read the article: Why We’re Still Happy

Collectively, Are We Still Happy in a Depression?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Collectively, Are We Still Happy in a Depression?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Dec 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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