Why Americans Are Getting Happier Amidst Economic Low Point

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Both President Obama and Senator McCain had a message about how change happens: from the bottom up. Obama made his case better, and had a better handle on what people envisioned at this time.

Now, nine months after giving Obama the clearest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan, tangible signs are appearing that the electorate not only accepts that the recession is real, but they accept the change they voted for. That doesn't mean they think Obama is perfect: it means the reframing of American values in the 21st century has taken hold.

Recent surveys of Americans show that optimism is growing, and the the "happiness indicator" has shifted. Amidst nearly universal financial loss with varying depths of intensity, Americans report they are happier with less. Who would have envisioned that shift possible a few years ago, when living on credit didn't scare the most bearish consumer?

"You just have to simplify," my seven year old informed me the other day, doubtless repeating what she has heard adults say this summer. It seems to reflect what these polls tell us -- that a change in economic circumstances has given way to a shift in attitude and values.

Go to a vacation spot: despite half price rentals, the Cape feels empty. Signs saying "FREE" have replaced last year's yard sales." Look in the eyes of a checkout clerk, and a conversation is likely to start. European cars and boats have "For Sale" signs on fancy lawns. People without jobs aren't keeping it a secret anymore. Summer camps have plenty of room.

This is the climate I grew up with in the 1970s in New York City, and never thought I'd see again. I had come to think my memories of pizza places giving free slices away in the evening was an embellished recollection, that free penny candy around the corner never really happened, or that my dreams of playing hide and seek with the other neighborhood kids under stoops and behind cars until dark were exaggerated. Even during the high crime of New York in the 70s, we kids had free reign. We thought we owned Manhattan, and no one ever proved us wrong. Now that the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s' delusion of infinite economic growth has stopped, I feel that community spirit of the 70s again.

This is not a red/blue shift, or a left/right shift. It is a reflection that Americans values are changing. Like most political shifts, like electoral upsets, cultural shifts seem sudden when the finally happen, but they are a long time coming. That is the main reason politics remains an art and not a science.

Like the last turn of the century, when the industrial revolution uprooted jobs, America is at a crossroads as it determines an identity for the 21st century. It could be that economic growth is becoming just a piece of many Americans' definition of success, and that the values of the 80s and 90s were the oddity, not the times that came before or after.