But the Great Recession has also exposed our magical thinking about what constitutes a middle-class lifestyle. Flash back a generation to the house with the white picket fence. It had a black-and-white TV with an antenna, a car in the garage, a chicken in every pot and two kinds of lettuce (light green and dark green). Now the average house is more than 50% bigger, the car is twice as powerful (and there’s often more than one), the TV is flat and gets 900 channels, and we expect the grocery store to have strawberries year-round and about 50 flavors of mustard. Small wonder we started charging our life-insurance premiums on our credit cards; we only expected to pay when we died.
So while optimism is the all-American anesthetic, at some point Expectation Inflation was bound to take its toll. I’m struck by how many people tell pollsters that the voluntary downshifting and downsizing of the past year have come as a kind of relief. Maybe we’ve lowered our standards. But we already knew that money can buy only comfort, not contentment; happiness correlates much more closely with our causes and connections than with our net worth. Americans may have less money — charitable giving in current dollars dropped for the first time in 20 years in 2008 — but about a million more people volunteered their time to a cause. Which makes me wonder: Is it a coincidence that eight of the 10 happiest states in the country also rank in the top 10 for volunteering?