I think it was. Having lived extensively in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, hopping back and forth since the early 90s, I can say that U.S. suburbia really smokes the competition. Canada was not far behind, perhaps Australia wasn’t so bad either, but it always strikes me as being pretty far from everywhere and thus essentially a bit duller.
Let’s look at the possible competitors for ‘happiest place in history.’ Basically, it’s obvious that there is no competition between pre-WWII and post-WWII societies, since before the war in most societies the vast majority of people were miserably poor. Even if it was happy to be a rich, or middle class, person in this or that country prior to WWII, postwar developments in medicine, (dare I say it) technology, and just general wealth and happiness have made rich and middle-class peoples’ lives much better since then.
So we can indeed restrict ourselves to post WWII, and to the post WWII west, since almost everywhere else was poor, miserable, communist, or some combo. Japan was ok materially after the 1950s, but doesn’t strike one as being a super happy society. Too much stricture, too much crowding, not enough space, too much patriarchy, relations between the sexes are strained, women are restricted, men are forced to play tough guy serious roles to prove machismo, not to mention workaholism. So Japan is out too. Which leaves us basically post-1945 U.S., Canada, western Europe, and we’re writing out Aus as a probable runner up.
Let’s then narrow our timeframe down a bit, since this affected most of ‘the West’ in a similar way. Let’s look at the U.S. And again, we’re looking at suburbia, which is where the majority of the U.S. population lived, and to a lesser extent, continues to live to this day. Yes there have been very poor areas in the US, but we’ll bracket these , since to a large extent they are another world from how most of the U.S. population experienced life; if we can separate Mexico from the U.S. because it is a different country, we can separate U.S. poor regions from suburbia because for all intents and purposes the culture, the economy, everything was so different that it was basically a different country. The U.S. has thus been, more than most western countries, a country with two separate countries in it; these will grow together in the future, but they started out and remained for most of this period so separate, and so contrasting, as to be two distinct entities. And, I should add, that the poor areas of the US have been endlessly fascinating for liberals, who have often overestimated their importance socially and economically (these contained through the 90s less than 15 percent of the population); so, let’s deal now if we can avoid stepping on toes with the ‘majority culture’ in the US during this time, and bracket these contrasting regions for discussion elsewhere.
So anyway, to return to our temporal filtering: which decades are best, between 1945 and 2010? The 1940s and 50s were cheery, but a bit poor compared to later times, culturally, economically, and a bit conservative. A nice time to raise kids and have a white picket fence, but still a lot of dullness. The 60s obviously are where things got better, a lot more wealth; kids really started having fun then. But I think that this reached a plateau in the later 1970s. The early 70s were too much Cold War, too much Vietnam, too relatively poor, a lot of things weren’t worked out yet compared with later.
This also raises the question: happy for whom? Well: we are talking about children, teenagers, and young adults. I think that by your 30s and 40s, you begin a slow descent into the abyss, and your role becomes one of really acting like anchors and role models for the younger people, for whom the taint of mortality is yet very slight, if they are lucky enough and live in a decent material and pyschological setting. Until we can stop the ageing process, the world really is the oyster of those younger than about 35. Maybe this is prolonged for you if you don’t have kids and have a very fulfilling career, maybe it’s shorter if you get right into a job and have major responsibilities by the time you are 25. The world seems more poetic, more epic, things are newer, passions are newer, everything is there for you to explore, and you’re really made genetically to do that, and to respond with maximum posivitity that you will ever do, that anyone will ever do. And so that is why we are really talking here about youth culture when we talk of happiness. Older people don’t really filter in. It’s nice if they can have an older sort of more sedate happy contentment: but theirs is not the true happiness which can be so much stronger in youth.
So anyway, to return to our decade-by-decade analysis, By the later 70s, however, things really got groovy. Everyone had cars, everyone’s parents have relatively big houses, and by everyone, I mean, the majority of people in suburbia; one could go for miles around, from town to town everywhere in the U.S. and find this massive prosperity which had never been come close to at any previous time. And the 1980s, with its MTV, and its youth friendly culture, and its generally optimistic culture, and its movies which were a bit naughty, but which had no gore, no horror. And everyone still had TVs, and so responded to similar cultural yardsticks; the viewing public was not hopelessly fragmented. And there were no cell phones, so people had to talk in person if they were physically together, and were either on the phone at home, or else driving to visit their friends. There was still a ‘glee club’ funness to everything, a sense that you joined groups at school, band, choir, and these things really mattered. College was the ultimate goal, and mattered, and you expected it to provide you with a good career in the future, and more of what your parents had, or even better.
And, I hate to say it, but hip hop culture, with its horrendous violence, its objectification of women, its banality, its’ dark ages bragadocio, and its utter lack of education and sophistication (what else do you expect from rappers who are all high school dropouts?), had not yet come onto the scene in a big way, it was a niche, until the mid 1990s. And so suburbia had still that cheery naive innocence of the 1950s and 60s and 70s, and also it had very literate rock stars who read poetry, and who wanted their song lyrics to be poetry, and very literate games like Dungeons and Dragons become pop sensations: the age was a high point of popular literacy: alternative music lyrics were never equalled; they were better on averaege, more coherent and more philosophical and more sustained than most 60s and 70s stuff as well which was still finding its way, I would argue.
And in the later 1980s, fashions were so classic, Laura Ashley, polo stuff, there was this sense that everyone in suburbia still had all of the polish and sheen of the edwardian thru-1950s posh people, the elizabeth taylor big white house with picket fence people, the father of the bride household was the ideal, and it was really shared, the whole molly ringwald culture, was really at its pinnacle: yes, gosh it was white, racially: but that is not really a crime, when along with whiteness comes education, poise, philosophy, concern, engagement, nobility, non-violence, respect for others, decent amounts of sexual and corporal restraint, a culture which did not routinely celebrate violating of bodies, a culture which had very few gun massacres, etc., oh, and, violent video games were also basically not possible either, until the end of our period, in the later 90s.
And economically, of course, gas was free, and land was cheap, and environmentally, global warming hadn’t started, and Russia was obviously failing and /or failed, and so the cold war was winding down, and over…. so many obvious good measures of how a culture can be good.
So yeah, hands down, U.S. suburbia in these decades was the pinnacle of human society.
Why not Europe? Isn’t scandinavia and Holland consistently the ‘happiest’ culture in the world? Having lived here now a lot, I can see that even in their heyday of the 80s and 90s, Europeans had a lot of good things, the British had a lot of good ideas, but there were severe limitations on what European teens could do, and they never had the North American idealism. Scans and Dutch are very polite, and well socialized, but I think their happiness comes from conditioning, to be respectful and happy. They run a very orderly society, but they always had tiny houses, little access to nature, and hardly any access to cars. Having cars and free gas and road freedom made American teens and youth such incredible masters of their own destiny; they could go to the beach, to the lakehouse, drive for hours to the mountains, drive across state, drive to concerts, go to hippie festivals, go to burger king, go to diners at 3 am, all in cars, having wild times, with no parents, and it made them mature, responsible. And Europeans never had this. They had bars, early drinking ages, and a more relaxed attitude towards sex and drugs. So many more of them just smoked a lot of dope, and had a lot of sex, indiscriminately, where north americans had girl/boyfriends. And so I saw the European youth culture of the late 80s and early 90s, and it was much more cynical, much more listless, much more “why are we here… i guess to smoke and drink and shag.” to North americans it seemed like something of a paradise, all of it done in this sometimes breathtaking historical backdrop, but in reality, it was done in cramped highrise apartments, and with very little hope of social advancement, little hope that your college degree would get you a good job, probabilities of going on the dole; and in continental Europe there was even more of a german-led post-modernist sense of essential futility. There were very few stores in Europe (still are), everything from shoes to audio equipment was prohibitively expensive; there were far fewer lake houses, (except in some rural regions), there were far fewer cars, etc., and so peoples lives were and remain much more circumscribed. This is why the US in the 80s and 90s was even happier than Europe, by a considerable amount: freedom, freedom to drive, freedom to occupy large houses of the parents with large yards, and swimming pools, lots of public parks, and as yet very few of the cultural and social problems which have since sunk in.
So as I have pointed out, I believe that this period of happiness has crested. Has Europe overtaken the US? A bit, but still US suburbia is probably better off, and creates happier people, as a whole, than European middling group-culture.
But why has the US declined from this happiness peak?
1) hip hop has made everything tainted with violence, banality, and sexual objectification, and just plain meanness. Whereas before it was cool to listen to ‘they might be giants,’ who are super fun and nerdy, now it is de rigeur to act not only cool, but like you are about to pull your gun out of your pocket and kill people at any minute. in short: we have quickly reverted to the dark ages, or the wild west, in the worst possible way.
2) too much video horror: has made people inured to scenes of human misery. kids now are inundated with too much scenes of actual bodies torn apart, killed, mutilated. this has taken the form of tatooing becoming normative. this is self mutilation. and it says that you like torture. this is why george bush could get away with torturing iraquis. The US population actually supports and/or does not care about torture now because it sees images of Gaddafi’s corpse every morning.
3) Video game horror: same: video games are so all-encompassing now, they not only have inured us to violence: the average teen has blown the heads apart, in graphic detail, of thousands of men, and point blank range, seeing fragments of bone and skull and brain explode, faces explode, bullet wounds through the eye, the nose, things that before only soldiers in the deepest horrors of war saw, we are now seeing all the time, and so people are just numb.
4) Fashion and sex: with hip hop, has come the slut culture. women are expected to dress like sluts, quite literally, and idealism, and all of the beauty that goes with waiting, and expectation, and innuendo, are replaced by : fuck me. It is a barbarous form of sexuality, not ideal, not satisfying, not philosophical, not ‘love’ and not fun, really.
5) 9/11. It really blew up the whole notion of PC correctness, and global villageness, it totally derailed decades of work on peacefulness, and unity between cultures, which is precisely what bin Laden wanted. He created hatred, very effectively, and it might take decades for western and islamic peoples to respect and enjoy each other as much as they did on 10/9/01. Not to mention, flying used to be fun. As one pilot told me, the 90s were a blast, you were like a cruise director. Now, it’s like you’re behind the Iron Curtain, every time you go into an airport. Incredibly boring and stupid. Thanks, handful of islamist assholes!!!
6) George W. He put a huge rift, in the aftermath of 9/11, into European US relations, and Obama did a lot of healing, but there will be bad blood, for a long time. The big happy family of western culture in the 90s, has been quite torn asunder.
7) Global warming. Katrina, Al Gore. It’s a big bummer. And the problem is, the main problem is China and India, which are too big for the US and Europe to do anything about, even if they did get the political will. We’re fucked for the forseeable future.
8) Global population + de-communization = falling living standards in the West. Overpopulation became much more of a problem when we realized population was causing global warming. African population has exploded in the past 20 years, and SE asia, and many other places, to entirely unsustainable levels. And since the de-communization of China and INdia, their demand for gas, and other resources has gone way up, and now American kids and everyone else has to pay way too much for gas, and their parents can only afford small houses. Also, they can now not hope to have the same house as their parents, not only due to the global land grab, but also:
9) The deconstruction of middle class jobs. The US rich, led by the MBA-educated efficiency revolution, have de-structured the middle class occupations everywhere: teachers, professors, have their jobs broken into tiny tidbits; there are many fewer full time jobs in industry and business; everyone is part time now, with no benefits, so cannot save, and therefore can’t spend, and so the economy stagnates, and people stay poor. Until we get back a culture which intentionally creates middle class jobs, we will see an increasing gap betwen rich and poor, and the middle class will shrink, which is has done dramatically in the past decade. Not to mention, this creates a sense of hopelessness, since people know that even with super hard work they will not be rewarded with anything except for more super hard work.
In the 1970s and 80s, you went to college and got a relatively cushy job which paid a middle class wage, and you had safeguards which meant you only worked 40 hours. Now, you work 70 0r 80 hours, and get paid no more, housing has gone way up, food has gone up, and you get no benefits, and you are constantly under threat of being fired.
It’s a bit better in Euorpe now, as I have said, their jobs are more protected, but there is still the problem of a lack of innovation, a lack of idealism amongst the youth, the crowded conditions, and the sense that there is little hope of betterment.
But in general, I think we can conclude that the US created the world’s happiest society in the 80s and 90s, basically the most ideal society ever known in global history. And I got to live in it. But now it’s gone, and it doesn’t look like coming back anytime soon. A big part of this blog’s purpose, however, is to help us figure out not how to ‘bring back the 80s’, but how to improve upon the 80s, so that the new society we create can bring similar or even greater levels of happiness, carefreeness, essential self-respect and respect for otehrs, not only to the suburban kids of a single country, but to as many people in the world as possible.