Girl on a Hike

How to Find Happiness in a Troubled World

An article that caught my attention this past week, amidst all of the focus on healthcare in D.C., was about the “Deaths of Despair” among middle-aged white Americans. I highly recommend checking it out and posting your thoughts in the comments. I have some questions and thoughts about how this phenomenon relates to early retirement and the frugal-stoic lifestyle many of us bloggers preach in order to obtain the early retirement goal. How can we turn this thing around to get more happiness into the system?

Our National Despair

The startling finding from the study reveals that life expectancy has unexpectedly decreased for white middle-aged Americans, while European whites have experienced increased life expectancy during the same 15 year period studied. What’s striking is that for the decades since World War II ended, life expectancy increased year after year, and now, we’re seeing a relatively sudden reversal.

The cause? The study’s authors, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, are honing in on the lack of steady, well-paying jobs. Many of these jobs, when they existed, were skilled factory or coal-mining jobs supported by unions. Benefits including healthcare and pensions were typical. The hourly pay rates were relatively high. These working class families could afford decent homes, cars, and all the trappings of what we might consider “middle class.” This was actually the environment I grew up in, in rust-belt Michigan.

Nowadays, good-paying union work is far less prevalent. Since the early 80s, manufacturers have continued to move production outside of the United States, in order to lower costs and increase profits. It could be that the strategy to win the Cold War was to outspend our Soviet adversaries on high tech armaments, while maintaining a robust domestic economy.

Whatever the strategy or intent, we find ourselves in a situation where the jobs of the past just aren’t there anymore. It’s been almost 75 years since the end of World War II. Do we still feel owed the spoils of winning that war, or, do we continue to challenge ourselves to compete in new and more complex arenas of the global economy, while not allowing extreme disparities to persist between haves and haves-not?

A Solution from Overseas?

An opposite study of sorts reveals some tantalizing answers. The 2017 study of the “World’s Happiest Countries” puts Norway and Denmark in first and second place, respectively. The U.S., perhaps feeling the impact of the very real “Despair” phenomenon, comes in at 14. What is so unique about the Scandinavian nations, as compared to the U.S.?

Having visited Norway, I can report that it is a very beautiful country, filled with active and fit people. I reckon if we had pristine surroundings in our backyard, fitness would come easier. Interestingly, Norway is a very wealthy nation (thanks mainly to its offshore oil production), but you wouldn’t conclude that on the surface, if your yardstick were the presence of gaudy homes and shopping malls.

Norwegians, like the Danes, have established highly egalitarian societies that shun overt displays of wealth. Some go to “university” to learn a high-skilled professional trade, while others go to “college” to learn a highly useful (and equally well-paid) trade. It may not be too far of a reach to think that the American white working-class of the 60s and 70s compare closely to modern well-off (and happy) working-class Scandinavians.

The Simple Path to Happiness

The answer might be obvious, even if the solution is far from obvious. Meaningful work that is stable, pays middle-class wages and provides necessary benefits is perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle. Without meaningful and well-paying work, social fabrics and supports can start to come undone. In the U.S., we’re prone to ever increasing disparities in wealth. Social constructs are under assault with drugs, alcoholism, and yes, I’ll say it, an overdose of screen-time on devices taking us further away from developing real, community-level support.

Building on this, once you’ve figured out how to provide meaningful work, benefits, and social supports (e.g., health care, education, police, fire, etc.), what can the individual do to find his or her path towards contentment? Stick with the Danes, and their concept of Hygge

Courtesy of Didriks:

The early retirement crowd must have a Danish component to its DNA. Hygge (pronounced, “hoo-guh”) is how the Danish describe their contentment in the simple pleasures of life. An argument is that the Danes have so few worries, with stable jobs, over a month of paid vacation, a year of paid maternity leave, universal healthcare, etc., that it’s easy to live the “simple life” without so many “clouds of worry” hanging over your head.

There’s an affinity there, I think, with the early retirement crowd. We find our contentment in meeting basic needs and nurturing relationships, rather than fulfilling a quixotic quest to amass a large fortune in nonsense (McMansions, jet skis, private school degrees, and BMWs.) Us early retirement types put a full court press into building safety margins with our investments. We focus our “worries” on helping our kids with their homework and keeping rabbits out of our victory gardens.

Can Big Government and Personal Accountability Coexist?

That all sounds good, right? If only we could copy what the Danes do, we’d be just fine. The problem is, we’re not Denmark. We’re our own amazing, albeit far from perfect nation. The early retirement crowd might appear to have their shit figured out, but they’re (with certainly some exceptions) a very small subset of predominantly college-educated whites. There is real and awful pain going on in too many American communities, White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian alike.

Is the solution to the problem of our despair to institute some new policies? Perhaps, but only if we can agree that good policy is an essential component to solving problems. There’s a strong bias by some, including those who stand to benefit from programs, against anything considered Big Government. Yet we expect our leaders to provide for us AND solve our problems for us. Is the right combination a blend of smart policy that doesn’t coddle us, but gets us off our feet and then empowers us to improve? I’d love to get your thoughts on that question. It’s probably a question worth its own blog post, but for someone else to tackle!

Comments 13

  1. Welcome back, AC!

    You touched on a few things I think are especially important. 1) Release from major worry: Agree or disagree with universal healthcare, that’s one big weight lifted off someone’s shoulders if they know they can never go bankrupt from a catastrophic illness. For those of us in the US, building margin in your life like many in the FIRE community preach helps us ease big ticket worries like that. 2) Contentment: A community that doesn’t feel the need to outwardly impress can focus on what’s truly important. 3) Simplicity: taking pleasure in the simple things, like time with friends and family instead of an endless and exhausting pursuit of more stuff. 4) Natural wonder: there’s something to be said about the beauty of your surroundings and having the time to enjoy it.

    Great thought provoking article!

    1. Thanks, Adam! You raise an interesting point with your number 4. I too thought that natural wonder would correlate with happier populations. Instead, it seems there’s little correlation at all and sometimes a reverse of expected here in the U.S. Check out the maps in the “Despair” article – a lot of issues concentrated along our coasts, Utah, Colorado, and desert Southwest. “Boring” Minnesota and central plains appear less affected by the issue. Interesting…

  2. Lots of good questions! I’m sure there’s a delicate balance between all-out socialism and all-out capitalism, but the devil is in trying to find the precise balance. Right now, it seems that our social safety net and tax code is determine to drive a wedge between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ but I don’t expect our gridlocked government to reform that any time soon.

    If you’re not familiar with it, an interesting idea is the universal guaranteed paycheck, coupled with universal healthcare, which would replace all other social safety nets. Everyone gets taken care of, but there’s every incentive to go out and make more. And it’s less risky/prohibitive to become an entrepreneur. Of course, this would rely on some hefty taxation…

    1. Good stuff, Dan. I should take a look into the universal paycheck concept. I heard of it not long ago. I agree- give everyone a level playing field and a reasonable safety net. After that, go earn what you feel you need beyond that.

  3. As my wife and I have spent the last hour or two sipping wine on our screen porch as dusk turns into night, watching cowbirds, cardinals and a really sporty grosbeak dine at our bird feeders, it occurred to me we have lived Danish lives. Especially now in our early retirement. We aren’t hyper consumers, we are very fit, and I had a solid great paying job at one company for over thirty years. We cooked a healthy gourmet meal together this evening and talked about our day. I know this isn’t everyone’s reality and I hurt for those who don’t have the contentment and companionship we have. Life is so good when it is good. But so not when it isn’t. Almost bedtime, we get up at 4:40 AM on Saturdays and run eight miles with some friends. We are in our sixties now and life has never been better.

    1. That is excellent, Steve! You seem to have a lot of this figured out. It’s really simple math, right – just remove the things that cause stress and “un-joy” and what you’re left with can’t help but foster contentment.

  4. I spent a summer in Norway. People look at life differently than we do here in the States. Life should be more about being happy and less about making money. Most people do not enjoy their jobs like you mentioned.

Please Share Your Thoughts!