Jonathan Zimmerman: Americans at the bottom of the economic pile are bitter; but their lives are peachy compared to those of poor Africans

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman , a Pennsylvania resident and history professor at New York University, is teaching this semester at the university's study-abroad program in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century" (]

So here's what we've learned from the latest round of political sniping at Barack Obama: Americans really are bitter. They just don't like to be reminded of it.

For the past week, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have been bashing Mr. Obama's remark that small-town Americans turn to guns and religion because they're bitter about their economic travails. Mrs. Clinton was at it again on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, during her last debate with Mr. Obama before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary election. "I just don't believe that's how people live their lives," she said. Mrs. Clinton has even declared herself a gun enthusiast, waxing nostalgically about her father teaching her to shoot when she was a girl. Meanwhile, her campaigners are handing out bumper stickers with a pointed message: "I'm not bitter."

Methinks they doth protest too much. Clearly, they're bitter about being called "bitter." And that tells you something important about Americans: they think they should be happy.

Only, they aren't.

Over the past few years, several international studies have shown that Americans are significantly less satisfied than citizens in other well-off countries. According to a 2006 British survey of 80,000 people worldwide, the four happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and Iceland. The United States was 23rd, ahead of the United Kingdom (41st) and France (62nd) but behind Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway.

What accounts for these differences? According to the British study, the best predictor of a nation's happiness was the physical health of its people. Next came the country's Gross National Product, and after that its level of education.

So it's fair to presume that small-town Americans would be even less satisfied than the national norm, just as Mr. Obama asserted. And if we want them to be happier, the best thing we can do is improve their health care, education, and the overall performance of the economy.

We might also start to think about poorer parts of the globe, which are -- surprise! -- significantly less satisfied than we are. Of the 20 least happy countries in the world, 12 come from Africa. Here in Ghana, which has experienced steady economic growth and political stability in recent years, people are the fourth happiest on the continent. But they still rank 89th on the world scale, far less content than people in virtually every Western nation.

That's why nearly half of Ghana's college graduates now reside abroad, mostly in the West. "We are tired of our poor and hopeless conditions of life," wrote an editorialist in the Ghanaian Chronicle earlier this month. "We are crying for relief for the millions of poor and hungry. Our happiness cannot wait."

For visitors from the West, it's always tempting to confuse African politeness and hospitality with contentedness. "These people are poor," we tell ourselves, "but they're happy." Yet the truth is exactly the opposite. Just like you and me, they can't be happy so long as they lack jobs, education and health care.

So yes, small-town Americans are bitter. Compared to their compatriots, they receive inferior services and opportunities. And Mr. Obama should be commended for acknowledging that, no matter what you make of his remarks about guns and religion.

But compared to most of the globe, Americans are pleased as punch.

So the next time you think you're unhappy, my fellow Americans, don't look at the rich guy on the other side of town. Look at the poor guy on the other side of the world, and count your blessings. You're a whole lot happier than he is.

comments powered by Disqus