Insight: Infrastructure and Happiness

This is an insight written by Molly Rogers on the recent Bahá’í Chair for World Peace conference on Infrastructure and Happiness, co-sponsored with United World Infrastructure and the College of Behavioral and Social Science on April 4-5,  2019.

During the Bahá’í Chair’s conference on Infrastructure and Happiness, Dr. Carol Graham, who holds many positions including, the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, gave an eye-opening presentation regarding the differences in perceived happiness of people in rich countries like the United States compared to poorer countries like Latin America.

Throughout her presentation, Dr. Graham revealed research results that were seemingly contradictory to one’s initial instincts. For example, Dr. Graham spoke about how people in Latin America had a higher perceived optimism than people in the United States. However, in order to proceed with her research, Dr. Graham and colleagues needed to clearly define the term happiness and draw intermittent conclusions on their way to final generalizations based on their data.

In the world of research, happiness is a very subjective term. Is the term applied to describe a specific moment, a month, a week, an instant feeling, or a more constant mood? When Dr. Graham explained that she and colleagues used hedonic, eudonic, and evaluative measures of happiness, I was not surprised that they had created more targeted measures for this data. I was originally shocked to hear that in 142 out of 162 countries, people were the least happy around the ages of 40-55 or 60 and happiest at old age. I would have expected teenagers and adolescents to be the least happy. After all, this is the period when people seem to be most confused and overwhelmed with life’s choices.

For many individuals, college is the first time that they are forced to be independent and live away from home. It is a strenuous period of transition. Conversely, I do understand why people would be most happy in their old age. Although they will still experience stress and probably more loss than ever, life has already trained them to deal with their emotions. Therefore, elderly people are more likely to have an “increased emotional wisdom.” Plus, most old people are retired, so they have more time to spend doing what makes them content.

Another point that Dr. Graham discussed was the difference in happiness levels in people in poorer countries versus people in more developed countries. Studies showed that people in poorer countries were actually more likely to display greater optimism that people in richer countries. This data aligned exactly with my expectations. Living in a rich country like America, there is so much pressure to have the newest material items and to keep up with the latest trends. 

I have experienced this phenomenon on a lower scale in my life. I grew up in a very good neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee and surrounded myself with friends who had very wealthy parents. According to my mother, I would come home from play dates and act entitled, an attitude which she would quickly force out of me. However, I attended a summer camp in Utica, Mississippi where we slept on bunk beds in cabins without air conditioning and minimal plumbing systems. This camp was where I was happiest and where I was the truest form of myself. It did not matter what clothes I was wearing or what kind of technology I owned. It was simply about expressing myself and having fun with the people around me. 

With the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer in highly developed countries, it is important to remember how this economic schism will affect the well-being of individuals. Ultimately, it is the high cost of being poor in such a rich country that makes America so depressing.

About the Author:

Molly Rogers is a sophomore Neurobiology and Physiology major at UMD. Growing up in Memphis, TN and being minutes away from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Molly has always been interested in children’s medicine and research. Her goal after graduation from UMD is to pursue medical school and make her dreams of working with children come true.

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