Back in June, I wrote a column explaining why life is better today than ever before. I provided facts and figures, suggested a book called "The Rational Optimist" by Matt Ridely, and even quoted Adam Smith who believed that international trade (globalization) promoted benevolence and, thus, a healthier society.
Perhaps education and affluence do produce a healthier population, but do they make for happier individuals? It doesn't look like it. Despite its wealth, the U.S. is not one of the happiest countries in the world. Some reports say Denmark is.
On the other hand, the New Economic Foundation, a British think-tank, puts Switzerland at the top of the list. In any event, the U.S. ranks well below several of the Scandinavian countries. No doubt economic security contributes to a happy population, but the NEF rankings were based on surveys that considered life expectancy and life satisfaction, not economic data.
China's newfound wealth has not made its people happy. A recent survey ranked China 182nd in the world in terms of happiness, and last year a book called "China is Unhappy" topped their bestseller list.
Individual happiness may be a purely personal characteristic, but national happiness — the happiness of a nation as a whole — is a matter of economic importance. There's evidence that the mood of the country doesn't follow the stock market; it precedes it. In other words, the people are not unhappy because the economy is bad. The economy is bad because the people are unhappy.
Counterintuitive, yes, but if you're interested in the theory behind this, check out Robert Prechter's Socionomics Institute, based in Gainesville. His theory is called socionomics. A related science, neuroeconomics, actually looks at the brain to see how people make decisions. Using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists can watch the brain as its owner decides what product to buy, how to invest money and how to vote.
Paul Zak is a neuroeconomist. Traditional economists, he says, don't understand the biological mechanisms underlying basic human interactions. For an economy to thrive there has to be a certain element of trust and — remember this for later — trust is linked to the neurotransmitter oxytocin.
Let's return to the original subject: Happiness, or the lack thereof. What do unhappy nations have in common? Apparently, they don't trust their government. This is true in both China and the U.S. I can't speak for China, but distrust is running rampant in the U.S. today.
The American mood is in negative territory, and every nasty thing that happens is magnified many times over as it is picked up by bloggers, TV and the press. We don't trust Congress. We don't trust the media. We don't trust the medical system, the educational system, the judicial system and so on. It's no wonder we're unhappy.
Bad moods are catching. Negativity breeds negativity. On the other hand, good moods are also catching, and this is where oxytocin comes in. Oxytocin is a natural chemical produced in the hypothalamus and released when people are relaxed and secure; for incidence, petting their dog, nursing their children or engaging in sex.
When oxytocin is released, people are more trusting. They feel better. They are more benevolent. People around them feel better as well and are in the mood to reciprocate. This may be as simple as buying someone a cup of coffee, or as ambitious as negotiating an economic agreement between countries.
Where negative feeling run high, where there is no trust, economic growth is slow, if it occurs at all. Apparently this is the situation today in the United States. The banks are afraid to lend money. Business is afraid to hire. Spending is down, even among those who can afford it.
This is worth remembering when you hear that talk show host lambasting the government or that politician using fear tactics in a campaign speech. These people are not patriots. Hate, suspicion, and negativity spread quickly and damage us all.
Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear biweekly on Tuesdays.