The State of the Nation: Unhappy and Burned Out

by on April 15, 2019 · 8 comments

in Culture, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

If our morning commutes tell us anything, it’s that there are a lot of miserable, angry people out there.  Sometimes on my drive to the gym, I make the mistake of counting the number of people who either cut me off, speed up to not let me change lanes, or dangerously tailgate my car.

Let’s just say the numbers are regularly dismaying.

It’s a Social Darwinist nightmare out there on the road in F-You Nation, and I have long thought that this phenomenon spoke to something larger afoot in the country—a collective darkness seems to be on the rise, and not just on the political front.  We are an unhappy bunch.

As the Washington Post recently reported:

Americans are unhappy, according to the report, an annual list ranking the overall happiness levels of 156 countries — and it’s only getting worse.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. has dropped in the ranking and now sits at No. 19, one spot lower than last year, according to the report produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative. The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan . . . The United States’ current rank marks its worst showing since the report was first released in 2012. The country has never cracked the top 10.

DG Wills Books in La Jolla hosted a reading of Jim Miller’s “Flash” on December 4, 2010

Some of the researchers involved in the World Happiness Report speculate that this could be the result of our overreliance on economic factors as a source of happiness and/or the growing trend toward addictive behavior, whether it be to opioids or to our electronic devices.

This news from the World Happiness Report comes on the heels of another study, this one from Gallop last year, that noted:

Our happiness, or what researchers refer to as “subjective well-being,” is down across the nation, according to a detailed study by the Gallup Organization and the healthcare information service Sharecare. The study takes into account survey results from more than 2.5 million Americans. It examines how people feel in their day-to-day lives across key dimensions of well-being, including physical health and wellness; having supportive personal and family relationships; financial and economic security; having a sense of purpose; and connection to one’s community.

The drop in well-being reported in this study was the worst in the 10-year history of Gallop’s research on the subject.  Of course, things like poverty, income inequality, racism, lack of education, and other factors play a part here, but what is interesting about these studies and others like them is that once you get past a basic level of economic security, there is no huge increase in happiness after that point, even as people get richer and accumulate more stuff.

In fact, it might just be one of our most cherished material possessions that is exacerbating this trend more than anything else — our electronic devices.  A number of studies have indicated that for both teens and adults, screen time in particular leads to unhappiness.  So perhaps, unplugging might lead more of us to engage in the world and the dense texture of the rich, real things around us rather than getting lost in a vortex of distraction.

Distracted people, it seems, are unhappy people, and when we are addicted to our source of misery, not much good will come of it.  Of course, it is easy to think that more authentic, deep social interactions would be good for our communities and our politics. And renewing our connection with the natural rather than the virtual world just might pop the bubble that insulates us from feeling more connection with our imperiled home.

We might also discover something about our work that could make us a bit uncomfortable: not much of it is of real value to us and it’s making us sick.  As the Washington Post observed in a recent story on the epidemic of burnout from doctors to moms, “Ninety-five percent of human resource leaders say burnout is sabotaging workplace retention, often because of overly heavy workloads.” This is part of another one of our addictions, this one to chronic stress, that isn’t just making us less productive, it’s stealing our lives.

If this is our culture now, perhaps we need another counterculture.

Hence, as the author of this piece suggests, we need to “make space in our lives” so we aren’t always in an unnecessary hurry.  The practical solutions offered by psychologists are simple: cutting tasks out, going for walks, getting extra sleep, etc. That is all well and good, but for a better antidote, I’ll turn to Henry David Thoreau, who, in Walden, muses, “There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work.”

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris April 15, 2019 at 5:29 pm

My favorite ode to road rage from 1995:


Chris April 15, 2019 at 5:33 pm

But joking aside, I DO think we need to get OFF line more (as I am on line writing this), and also not let social media create such a mob mentality. When you go to a bar, keep the damn phone put away and enjoy your drink and the company of the person(s) you are with.


Chris April 15, 2019 at 5:37 pm

But joking aside, I DO think we need to get OFF line more. We need to not get caught up on the mod mentality of social media (which isn’t to say ignore it). We when we go go a bar, put the damn phone away and enjoy your drink and the company of the person(s) you are with.


Chris April 16, 2019 at 5:11 pm

Editor dude, if you don’t mind you can remove this as it’s a duplicate with misspellings. I didn’t see it post the first time.


Rufus April 16, 2019 at 7:43 am

I have voluntarily stepped back from social derangement. No TV news is a good start, minimal Internet, no social media, no Twitter, no Instagram, and no political discussions with friends.

I love the Rag for local stories, but avoid reading anything hinting of politics. Books are now my evening entertainment along with carefully selected TV shows. Thank god, or whomever, for the DVR!

Try it. Unwind, unconnect, be selective, enjoy the outside, enjoy your fiends, but DON’T TALK POLITICS or RELIGION!! You’ll find yourself in a new, relaxed state of mind.


Toby OB April 16, 2019 at 11:47 am

Thank you Chris & Rufus for your strategies to seek calm in our world of non stop information. We are empowered by effective management of information instead of being its casualty.


lori saldaña April 16, 2019 at 2:43 pm

I agree “a collective darkness seems to be on the rise, and not just on the political front.”

As a single woman of color, I’ve seen this darkness and the damage it can inflict on people, all of my life. Many of my friends and I have survived harassment, assault, sexism, discrimination, and racism- often lurking just below the polite façade of civil society, and suddenly appearing when the political climate changes- in unexpected ways, from unexpected influencers.


sealintheSelkirks April 18, 2019 at 3:48 pm

Yep, cut the addicting invisible electronic wires that are plugged directly into your subconscious brain by corporations that want to make money off you. That is the ONLY reason these devices exist. If you think these people really cared about your well being…think Big Tobacco. Tv, cellphones, video games, not really much different than huffing on a cigarette because they all are just another way to addict humans to something that is profitable to someone and damn the consequences.

Look up the study that published the telecommunications industry documents on what they were trying to do ( I think). These corporations found the gold mine because what they were trying to do worked exceptionally well. And even better when started with young children (just like tobacco) because the young folks are addicted to the point of being non-functional without the screen in their hands. Truly scary.

When you see a 7 year old having a panic attack because she left her phone at home and her mother won’t turn around to go get it… Has anybody else had someone walking down the street in the middle of a sunny day just run the hell into you because they didn’t know you existed since they were staring at a screen instead of actually looking where they were going?

Here’s a little one-day study you can do on yourself to see just how much time you spend reacting to the wires plugged into you. Once you start this, try to go for an entire week listing the numbers. The total will really shock you.

1st is get a notepad and take it everywhere with you. Have each page be one of the subjects you tend to count.

Example: count how many times you look at your phone? Make a mark. How long does each look take to get it out look at it, decide to put it back in your pocket? Write that down. A subcategory below that is list how many times you answer your phone and the duration of each call in minutes and seconds (seconds add up!).

Another page you can do the same for tv. Another page for computer time and have that broken down into sub-categories (like FaceBlech, check the weather, surf report, email, etc).

When you add it all up, you will find an astounding part of your life you just lived that week is in that notebook. Just from the phone, tv, and computer.

I dumped the tv in 1993. Have never and never will own a cell phone. Never been signed up on FaceBlech. And I un-addicted to tobacco and video games years ago… There is so much else to do that’s much more fun!!



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