My life as a "single mother" ended shortly before noon Thursday, and that suited me just fine since I am neither single nor a mother. My husband was away, and my cousin's 13-year-old daughter had just taken off to return to Colombia after spending six weeks here.
As I retraced her last steps at the airport, I thought about her final impression of the United States. She said everyone seemed angry. At the ticket counter, an airline representative had scolded us for giving her one too many documents. A cashier who sold us juice got mad because we took too long to get out of the way of other customers. Then there was the waiter at a restaurant who was effective and fast but furious -- so much so that I bet customers tipped him out of fear of his reaction if they did not.
For obvious reasons, people who work at airports are under a lot of stress, and maybe what we experienced that day were unfortunate coincidences in this usually civil city. But I must say, it appears as if a vague agitation anxiety has descended on normally pleasant people here. Too many behave with hostility when patience might be more appropriate.
According to many polls, Americans are said to be angry about Iraq, angry over corporate pay and scandals, and angry at both political parties. They are frustrated with the media, concerned about the rising cost of prescription drugs and worried about the erosion of privacy. That's a lot to be troubled about -- even for Americans who are accustomed to lives of abundance.
Several psychologists and political scientists I've talked with suggest that politicians are not helping matters. With people on both sides of the political spectrum feeling stressed, politicians direct anxieties at the other side and use the opportunity not for conciliation but to rile the masses and turn personal anxiety into public anger.
John Kerry, in accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for president, referred to the "angry division" that he and President Bush should strive to avoid during the weeks remaining in the campaign. But that call and all the optimism that the Democratic National Convention pumped over the airwaves came off as a veneer for the true rage that politicians know will drive people to the polls.
"We're mad as hell," was the battle cry that Rep. Charles Rangel of New York furiously repeated in his speech at the Democratic convention. Then there is the cry of class warfare from Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, about the two Americas, one rich and one deprived.
While there was little research I could find that would tell me whether Americans are angrier today than ever before, a lot has been written on the issue of happiness and satisfaction throughout the world. Curiously, indexes such as the World Values Survey often rank people in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador among the happiest and most satisfied with life, while the United States and other industrialized nations rank lower, despite much higher economic development and national and individual wealth.
Residents of Latin American countries, in fact, tend to rank higher on measures of happiness and life satisfaction than residents of industrialized nations. In what is called the "subjective well-being" ranking, the World Values Survey asks respondents, for instance, how satisfied they are with their jobs and the financial situation of their households. It also asks if they think about death and how much they trust their government.
While the index does seem to imply the revolutionary notion that money doesn't buy happiness, it also suggests that a deeper appreciation within a country or culture of nonmaterialistic values -- time with family, love of nature, sense of community -- is necessary to change people's own assessment of satisfaction. In countries such as Colombia, perhaps 40 years of internal strife have made its citizens alter their perspectives about what is valuable.
Sadly, the kind of values debates occurring here are more acrimonious than essential. President Bush's push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages has raised perhaps the most heated one. As the director of the World Values Survey, Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan, put it, this kind of values debate leads to "profound social divisions" by characterizing one side as the good guys and the other side as the bad guys.
A values debate with political intent might prove productive in an election year, but it is unconstructive in the long term. It is more likely to lead to new clashes and irritations, and in turn make people feel less content with their everyday lives.