If U.S. Is Best, Why Aren't Americans Happier?


April 15, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- I am one of the generation of Americans who were urged to eat their vegetables by mothers saying, ''Think of the poor starving children in Europe.'' A child of the 1950s, I was surprised when I first saw Europe and there were no starving children in sight.

Years later, when I lived in Europe, I was astonished to find myself occasionally harboring the thought that perhaps people in France, Germany and Italy might actually live better than we do. That's almost treason for folks raised to declare that the ''pursuit of happiness'' was practically a constitutional right.

Jonathan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times apparently thought about that, too. He did something about it, collecting statistics and impressions to try to compare the quality of life in the United States with that in other developed countries.

Leaving aside certain oil-producing sheikdoms that hire Americans to fight their wars, he found that we are the richest people in the world -- on paper. The United States has the world's highest ratio of gross domestic product per capita.

The closest to us on that score are the Canadians and Germans. Each citizen of those countries earns or gets about 87 percent of what each American does. An American has to work only 20 minutes to buy a Big Mac and a large order of fries, which ties us with Switzerland for best in the world.

So we are ahead in the category Mr. Peterson defines as ''Wealth.'' We are also way ahead in ''Things.'' Almost 85 percent of U.S. households own microwave ovens and 69 percent have VCRs. (I realized right there that something is wrong with me. Our house has neither.) Only 67 percent of the Japanese, who make them, own VCRs.

But then Americans begin to fade. The Times defines happiness as a warm report card. The United States had the two As in ''Wealth'' and ''Things,'' but a D in ''Leisure Time,'' C-minus in ''Poverty'' and ''Sharing the Riches,'' C in ''Housing'' and ''Jobs for Everyone,'' C-plus in ''Health,'' B in ''Climbing the Ladder'' and B-plus in ''Satisfaction.''

''Leisure Time'' is the first category you notice when you live abroad because most people have more time off work than we do. The average American gets 20 paid holidays a year (including vacation). The average German gets 40. Going down the list, Belgians get 38.5, Austrians and Spaniards get 38, the French get 36.5, Swedes get 36 and Greeks get 35.

Rich as we are, we share very little. You may have noticed the people sleeping on the streets. That has something to do with the fact that half of all the after-tax earnings in the United States go to the top 1 percent of us.

Or perhaps you can relate to this statistic: American chief executives make 160 times as much as the average pay of their employees. In Japan, that figure is only 16.

The housing mark seems too low to me, but perhaps that is because U.S. home-buying patterns are so skewed by prices in the better neighborhoods of major cities that are out of the reach of all but the wealthiest Americans. On average, an American can buy a home with four years' wages, compared with six years in Japan.

I was shocked, too, by the ''Climbing the Ladder'' rating. Opportunity, after all, is what we are about. But it seems now that our numbers are dropping compared with other societies. Though more Americans are on their way up, more are also on the way down in these down-sizing days.

Health, of course, is our big pain. Americans spend 13.4 percent of earnings for health care, compared with about 8.5 percent of the citizens of other developed nations. And, with all of that, our life expectancy is less than every other country mentioned here.

However, if you separate American whites and blacks, the whites have as long a life expectancy as anyone on earth. American blacks do not -- which tells you something else about life in the U.S.A. There is the same pattern in our infant mortality, which, overall, is higher (that is, worse) than almost every other developed country, including Ireland and Hong Kong.

So, are we happy? Pretty much: 73 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with their lives. That puts us eighth on the list, behind Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Northern Ireland, Norway and Ireland.

We are ahead of Japan in life satisfaction. The Japanese are ranked 21st. I guess you would expect that last ranking, because the Japanese work so hard and long. Like us.

Is it possible that there's more to life than money?

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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