Thursday morning, on my way in to campus, I was listening to NPR. One of the items was an interview with consultant Howard Davidowitz, about the current state of the retail industry. No real surprises -- automobile and restaurant sales are down, off-price sales are strong, Wal-Mart is doing just fine, thank you. What struck my ear was Davidowitz's closing comment that the US standard of living was headed south for several years, at least. He said that like it was a bad thing.
Not that I like real poverty better than anybody else. Been there, done that, prefer the alternative. But "standard of living", certainly as referenced by Davidowitz, isn't about how well you live. It's about how much you spend. And spending more doesn't correlate with living better -- at least, not in developed nations. A good cursory analysis in the Christian Science Monitor explains this well. For more insight, the data is available from the World Values Survey site. (The survey is based at UMichigan.)
Two data points: Denmark is about #10 in GNP/capita, but #1 in happiness. The USA is #1 in GNP/capita, yet only #16 in happiness. An absence of money can make us sad, but its presence doesn't make us happy. US consumer psychology (notice how you never hear about "US citizens" and more? it's always "US consumers".) is totally screwed up (thanks, Madison Avenue!). The CSMonitor article looks into this in more detail.
Another, complementary, survey was published by Leicester U in the UK. According to its data, Denmark is still first, but the USA slips to #23. An item in the San Jose Mercury News gives some perspective. Community planner Dan Burden writes about how Denmark achieved its top ranking -- increasing the walkability of its towns and cities. Burden's thrust is that Silicon Valley communities should focus on walkability, but the same thing definitely applies to campuses, as well. And increasing walkability decreases carbon footprints.
See, your mother wants you to be happier. She also wants to keep you around for a while longer. Luckily, the two objectives harmonize well.