I don’t know if it was something in the drinking water or perhaps some new vitamin craze that we’ve yet to be privy to, but Americans by and large seem very unhappy this Christmas. Don’t let the holiday retail sales figures fool you. People buy even more when they’re depressed than they do when they’re happy. That makes sense when you think about it because you’re more likely to buy things to make you happy when you’re sad than you are to buy things to make you happy when you already are happy. The U.S. economy grew at a rate of 4.1%, the highest rate since the Clinton administration. The stock market is at record highs. Unemployment is down around 7% for the first time since the onslaught of the Great Recession. The question must thus be asked: why are people so unhappy if things are, at least if we take things at face value, going relatively well? The answer I think lays in our perceptions, but much of our angst is also due to anecdotal situations that were beyond our control. I, for instance, had a nasty relationship this year therefore when I look back on the year I see a fall semester that I wasn’t crazy about, a girlfriend who made me miserable, and little chance for any of that changing barring major action on my part.
I did take that major action that was required but now I have to deal with the seven stages of grief, which doesn’t make my life any easier moving forward. Not everyone has had the kind of personal problems I’ve had nor should I categorically call the year a failure for me personally because the outcome of a relationship was less than optimal. I can look back and see a great amount of production that was achieved this year. I can also see missed opportunities however and it is these missed opportunities I think that are forcing many of us to label 2013 as “not a good year.” One only needs to look to Congress to see an example of things gone horribly, horribly wrong. Following the 2012 election that saw President Obama re-elected with over 50% of the vote the big takeaway that Republicans felt they had was that “the American people” as they are so fond of saying “are dissatisfied with this President.” That is an amazing analysis to come away with after a clear majority voiced their support for the person they think is the root of all their problems. It’s one thing to be unhappy, it’s quite another to be upset for all the wrong reasons. Regardless of the cause, Congress began by spending it’s New Years in Washington debating the dreaded “Fiscal Cliff” deal to avert a government shutdown, a default on publicly held debt, and a massive tax increase that would have in all likelihood pushed us back into recession. Actually, that was a pretty good start because the consequences had we failed to act would have been calamitous. Later Congress would shut the government down basically because they could and nearly defaulted on our debt yet again. The year ended with a landmark, bi-partisan budget deal that is landmark only in the sense that it’s the first non-continuing resolution to fund the government since 2006.
Most people do not turn to the actions of Congress to describe how their year went. If they did we would likely have an extremely high mortality rate in the U.S. and be far less productive. People do not exist solely as individuals however. We are all part of something that is greater than ourselves. We are part of a community and however that community is defined be it your physical community (neighbors and the like), an online community (some World of Warcraft buddies) or a peer/kinship group (friends and somewhat relatives.) Our own individual feelings tend to mirror the feelings of the group that we associate ourselves with the most. I might say that 2013 was a bad year because my readers seemed dissatisfied with their lives. Someone else may have lost a loved one or lost a job. Things happen in our micro-world that affect or macro-perspective. If I lost one of my dogs but got an Academy Award nomination for instance I would be depressed. The nomination is great and everything but my dogs matter a lot to me and they affect my everyday existence in a more profound way than the community in which I work does.
If you listen to the “experts” (something that I don’t recommend you do) then you may believe the line of thinking that because there were more scandals, more crimes committed, and more people dying therefore 2013 was a bad year. That happens every year though. The question that I want to understand is: why was 2013 a disproportionately bad year? I think that’s a very difficult question to qualify if only because it can only be answered using subjective analysis. Everything is subjective when you think about it, but we often link how we think about things to the group of people that we tie our existence to. So, did we have a bad year because those around us had a bad year or did we actually have an okay year that was marred by the quantitative pressure put on us by other people? Perhaps it’s a little of both. It does seem a bit strange that there are so many eager to dismiss 2013 as a bad year yet casually expect 2014 to be better. I just want to turn to the people who think 2014 is going to be great and say: “you know it’s an election year, right?” All those terrible ads, all the ridiculous political posturing, and the endless campaigning will mar your 2014. Thus I think it is important to wonder whether actually like the drama of elections in this country. Nobody likes a boring, monotonous existence, but perhaps we take a little too much pleasure in the drama created by outside forces. Even if it that is the case and we find that next year is a better year; how long until we start asking ourselves: will 2015 be better?