Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Have the Germans Got to be Unhappy About?

Germans should be happy, so it seems.  Sure, the Greek debt crisis looms large, but the German stance toward Greece comes largely from a place of feeling more-or-less secure (if not downright superior) in their own position.  The economy is booming (by OECD standards, but still not China or Brazil), unemployment is at record lows, and the German Model, so easily dismissed a few short years ago, is touted as a model for all, even in the U.S. press.

The credit for Germany's recent success, as I have argued here before, owes a lot to the structural model of Rhenish capitalism.  But this was transformed from sclerotic welfare state to Third Way-ish stakeholding welfare largely through the Harz Commission reforms pushed through by Gerhard Schroeder.  Planet Money's Caitlin Kenney recently did a great piece that captures the somewhat paradoxical public sentiment toward the Harz reforms: glad to have a booming economy and jobs, but miss the cushy safety net and think that business should give back more of what they make.    

My brother David sent me this link to the new Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index that shows Germans are significantly unhappier than the Brits and Americans:
Less than half, 41.1%, of Germans rate their current lives and expectations for their lives in five years high enough to be classified as "thriving," compared with 52% of Britons and 52.9% of Americans who say the same. Relatively few Germans are "suffering," but a majority are "struggling."

There would seem to be at least three possible explanations for this paradox of malaise amid relative abundance.
1. that there is a German disposition to be not so happy.  As an anthropologist, I shy away from gross stereotypes, but having lived in Germany a good bit, I also know that there could be something to this.  Germans, on average, are definitely not as cheerfully happy as your average American, but this question asks about overall life satisfaction.  Still, the Germans tend to characterize the state of things (their lives included) in much more reserved terms that the typical American.
2. that the big-state social democracy model is bad for happiness, so despite rosy objective measures, the encroachments on freedom and laissez faire markets is bad for society's overall wellbeing.
3. that German dissatisfaction with the status quo is what produces the relatively high objective measures of economic quality of life, an angst that leads to public agitation that leads to policies that tame the market toward certain common good ends.

Now these are not mutually exclusive, or even exhaustive.  And, in fact, I would say that there is something to be said for each of these factors in producing the German malaise the Gallup poll finds, even if my understanding of bildung and an eudaimonic fulfilled life lead me to give greater weight to the first and last.

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