Individualism, optimism, belief in hard work: Pew survey says that's still America

Posted at 4:24 PM, Mar 17, 2015

In every presidential election, the party that doesn’t control the White House campaigns on the warning that America is on the cusp of losing its can-do spirit, rugged individualism and pioneer’s optimism.

Republicans say that big government, the Nanny State and expanding entitlements are threatening American exceptionalism. Democrats preach that Big Business, inequality and unchecked markets have put the American Dream at risk.

Well, according to the Pew Research Center, the quintessential American character traits look better out the window than in the mirror. Compared to other countries, Americans remain individualistic and optimistic.

Last year, Pew conducted surveys in 44 countries. Two questions focused on what we might call individualism. One asked if people disagreed with the idea that success in life is controlled by forces outside their control. The other asked how important hard work was in getting ahead.

Americans are at the extreme on both counts, believing in individual control and the power of hard work. Take a look:

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The first person to really diagnose and name this uniquely American quality was Alexander de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago. “’Individualism’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,” he wrote. “Our fathers only knew about egoism.”

Beginning in the 1960’s cultural critics of the left and right began to worry that rugged individualism was slowly morphing into shallow selfishness. The classic book on that was “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch.  We recently did a podcast with psychologist Jean Twenge, the author of “The Narcissism Epidemic,” who worries that the millennial generation’s individualism is growing even more selfish and cynical.

Perhaps there is some comfort in Pew’s findings, at least comparatively.

Americans also remain super-duper optimistic, especially compared to other wealthy nations. People from what Dick Cheney once called “Old Europe” like to make fun of Americans for chirping, “Have a nice day.” Humbug. Pew asked people in the 44 countries to describe their day. The results, also from Pew, are dazzling:

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Crazy thing #1: America is happier than any other wealthy developed country.

Crazy thing #2: There is no correlation between national wealth and material prosperity and happiness – or self-reported contentment. Look at the countries at the top of the “having a good day” list: Nigeria, Columbia, Kenya, Nicaragua or Bangladesh.

This is yet another data point in one of the most persistent puzzles of social science. In 2000, Yale political scientist Robert Lane wrote a book called “The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies,” which argued that increased material well-being didn’t increase mental or subjective well-being – happiness. Another great book on the topic by Gregg Easterbrook was called “The Progress Paradox.”

America has resisted the progress paradox more than most of the rest of the world. Maybe it’s because of our individualism. Or maybe Old Europe is just tuckered out.

[Also by Dick Meyer: The problem isn't Hillary, it's the Democrats]

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