A Troubling Epidemic of Good News

October 16, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

It's been an interesting couple of weeks for all those people who complain that the media are full of too much bad news.

''Faithfulness In Marriage Is Overwhelming'' proclaimed the New York Times in a front-page story summarizing the results of an extensive new study of sexual practices among Americans aged 18 to 59. The Sun's headline took a slightly different tack, noting that ''Americans' Sex Lives Lack Sizzle.''

Contrary to the impressions created by television, billboards or popular songs, this is not a country of free and rampant sex. In fact, ''rampant fidelity'' comes closer to the truth, with 85 percent of married women and 75 percent of married men telling researchers they are faithful to their spouses.

Hardly a week after the sex bombshell, the Census Bureau issued a report telling us that, as a nation, we really are shaping up.

Americans are living longer, smoking less and buying more books, magazines and newspapers. Fewer people are buying guns. We're consuming less in the way of fat- and cholesterol-laden foods like whole milk, red meat and eggs. And, despite President Bush's burst of honesty on the subject, we're eating a lot more broccoli than we used to.

There's even some good news on the values front. Americans are less likely to get divorced and more likely to belong to a church. The number of abortions is declining (although, in an ominous note, the number of births to unmarried mothers is not).

Meanwhile, John P. Robinson, director of the Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, is telling us our amount of free time has increased over the years, despite the pervasive sense that we're more rushed than ever. In 1965, adult Americans reported 34.4 hours of free time each week. Two decades later that had risen to 41.1 hours for men, 39.6 hours for women.

OK, OK. So how to explain that with all good news around, Americans are in a sour mood?

Poll after poll seems to find Americans resentful of government, tired of taxes, dissatisfied with the president, down on Congress, hostile to just about any politician who wears the label ''incumbent.'' In short, Americans seem thoroughly fed up.

And, of course, stressed out.

Rampant fidelity? We can believe that -- who has the time to fool around? But more leisure time? Are you kidding?

Mr. Robinson, the time guru, notes that much of the time we save with labor-easing devices like microwave ovens or washing machines gets eaten up in other ways: It's a lot less trouble to wash clothes, so we do it more often. We move further from work, so we spend more time commuting. And so on.

Still got some free time? Not to worry -- television is always ready to soak it up.

Don't keep it on too long, however. As increasing numbers of Americans live in suburbs, they find they need more cars per family -- and thus more money for car payments, repairs and insurance. That means family members have to earn more money to pay for the cars to get themselves to work or school or wherever else they're supposed to be. Welcome to affluence -- the pressures of attaining it and, once there, of preserving it.

Speaking of pressure and stress, the recent good news doesn't erase most Americans' intimate acquaintance with time crunches, especially what has been called the ''family-time famine.''

Two years ago, the Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. surveyed its employees and found that 65 percent suffered from exhaustion and insomnia.

In 1991, Harvard University economist Juliet B. Schor published a best-selling book arguing that, over the past two decades, Americans have increased their work hours by the equivalent of a full month each year.

That same year, a CNN/Time poll found that 61 percent of respondents agreed that ''earning a living today requires so much effort that it's difficult to enjoy life.''

So there's plenty of evidence to fill in the dark side of the good-news stories. But we all know the dark side is there. That's why it's so refreshing to be reminded that discouraging words aren't the whole story.

As John H. Gagnon, a co-author of the sex study, told the New York Times, ''We have had the myth that everybody was out there having lots of sex of all kinds. That's had two consequences. It has enraged the conservatives. And it has created anxiety and unhappiness among those . . . who thought 'If I'm not getting any, I must be a defective person.' ''

Want to keep up with the proverbial Joneses? Stay faithful, stop smoking, don't buy a gun, cut out the fat.

And don't forget the broccoli.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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