January 26, 2010

When were times most fun? Survey says...

I'm not putting this up at my pay blog because it's worth having a little more solid foundation for the narrative I've been spinning lately about how tiring the culture has become since the early 1990s.

The idea is to use survey data to see how people felt at the time, since what they feel when looking back could be biased in a positive direction if they feel nostalgic or in a negative direction if they feel remorseful. Ideally you want to take the person's pulse across a variety of indicators of fun times so that you get a richer account of what makes daily life enjoyable. The General Social Survey has three questions that I've combined into a fun index. Think of it as a checklist. The response that counts as a check is in parentheses after the question.

1) HAPPY. "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days - would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" (Very happy)

2) LIFE: "In general, do you find life exciting, pretty routine, or dull?" (Exciting)

3) TRUST: "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in life?" (Can trust)

The first two are self-explanatory. Why include how trusting people are? Well, how else are you going to go out and socialize with lots of people if all of you are suspicious of one another? Trust is the most basic ingredient of group action, and you can't have fun all by yourself. I've been talking mostly about the culture's decline in sincerity, but the implosion of trust is an equally strong factor. That probably drives the flight from public spaces that I've documented in other posts, such as not going to parks or bike-riding anymore, and it's at the root of Robert Putnam's story about the decline of community.

By the way, that's my theory for why the crime rate tracks the fun and wild vibe of the culture: when most people are trusting, they're more vulnerable to criminals -- not just by getting scammed, but simply by being out and about rather than holed up in their homes. Criminals only come out of the woodwork after most people rush into the public space. If most people are suspicious, paranoid, and overly cautious in social life, they won't be out much. A special case of this is helicopter parents not letting their kids go anywhere or do anything. With so few open targets venturing out into public spaces, criminals look for something else to do for fun and money.

Now, the whiners will object that this is just a checklist that a preppy head cheerleader would make up. But they're wrong: even if you defined yourself by the obscure music you listened to, you still searched for other people who liked that music, you congregated at the clubs and record stores where they were popular, and in general you spent a lot of time hanging out with other people who liked what you liked. In short, you had a life -- whether you participated in the mainstream or not. You felt happy, life was exciting, and you trusted people enough to do all those social things just mentioned.

To make the index, I just added the fraction of people who checked off the right response for each of the three questions. This answers the question, "If we chose someone at random, how many of the three boxes would we expect them to check off?" If everyone checked none, the index is 0; if everyone checked all three, the index is 3; in between is in between. This assumes that the variables of happiness, excitement, and trust act independently of each other to produce the overall fun level. Another way to do it is to multiply them instead of add them -- this is where each one interacts with or reinforces the others. It turns out that the pattern is exactly the same either way, so I'm sticking with the first way I drew the graph, which is the expected number of boxes checked off on the fun checklist, out of three. Here are the results:

There aren't many years from the '70s that include all three questions, but 1973 is the second-funnest of the past roughly 35 years. 1976 is still up there, and 1980 -- which culturally is still part of the late '70s -- is even higher. It's no surprise to me that 1984 is the funnest year on record. That's right at the height of new wave, dance pop, breakdancing, one cool movie after another, Reagan's landslide re-election, and on and on. Even by 1987 there's a noticeable drop-off, and it slides bit by bit through 1990. Again, no surprise that 1991 is the first year of the bottoming out that you see, although 1994 was an even bigger bummer. By this time, everyone is hysterical about third wave feminism, political correctness, AIDS, postmodernism, bla bla bla, and the homicide rate reaches its peak in 1991. The recent euphoria shows up pretty clearly: 2002 through 2006 buck the trend of boringness, but as we found out, that was unsustainable and 2008 turned out to be the least fun year recorded. (Imagine if they had data for 2009!)

From the peak of 1973 or 1984 to the nadir of 2008, there was a 15% decrease in the fun index. Although the pattern is the same for the interactive model, it's measured differently, so that one shows a 38% decline. Regardless of which model is closer to reality and what the true decline is, the important message is the picture. Times were pretty fun starting at least in the mid-'70s and lasting through the mid-'80s, the late '80s (including 1990) were a twilight period, and ever since 1991 we've been mired in a sarcastic, meta, ironic, cynical hell.

I actually don't mind it so much because there are ways around it. For one thing, the late '70s and the 1980s are back in fashion, so you can socially enjoy culture that isn't so disdainful of carefree fun. (Take this early Blondie song, for example.) That gets around the problem of happiness and excitement. Trust is a much harder problem, and the only real short-term fix you have available is to move to a place that's pretty low in ethnic diversity, like the Mountain Time Zone where I am. Sure, you're giving up the higher salary, the better architecture, the more varied cuisine, yadda yadda, of diverse coastal life. But those things are laughably impotent at boosting human happiness when compared to the radiant bustle of social life made possible by people who basically trust one another.


  1. Re: movies. The 1980s were the worst decade for American movies ever. I can't believe you used them as evidence of supposedly happy 1980s. Today we have much better entertainment: movies are better, TV is much, much better, video games are orders of magnitude better, and we have the web.

    Nostalgia for the past - the good old days - is always with us. I am very suspicious of it.

  2. Interesting article. It's amazing that 1991 is always the scarlet year, so to speak, in terms of American culture--and the downfall since then. I remember 1991 all too well. I was a sophomore and junior in high school that year. What I do remember is that the first half of 1991 still was pretty much the late 1980s. Then came the second half--everything changed practically overnight. Music is a great place to start. If you look at Billboard's Hot 100 chart up until June 1991 (when Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush" spent five weeks at #1) no #1 song spent more than 4 weeks at that position (Madonna's "Like A Virgin" spent six weeks at #1 from Dec. 22, 1984-Jan. 26, 1985). The introduction of the SoundScan system changed the Hot 100 forever, and with the introduction of grunge/alternative, gangsta rap and lame '90s pop, if I look at a Hot 100 chart post-1991 I might only know a few songs from that list. Ironically, I stopped buying Billboard magazine in 1991. 1991 was also the year that kitschy '70s "retro" came back into vogue. I remember Newsweek did a story about it around the summer of that year. Speaking in terms of American culture, it has been a cesspool since that scarlet year indeed.

  3. Your theory of crime is the opposite of Jane Jacobs' in "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". She claims that exciting places lots of people go to have low crime because of all the "eyes on the street". Dull gray places nobody goes to are the most dangerous.

    Since you're a fan of Whit Stillman, you might be interested to know he had a French predecessor.

  4. Agnostic,

    Let me show you something that I promise you'll find interesting.

    Look at this 1992 Video Music Awards performance of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers of "Give it Away" from the 0:35 second mark onwards. There is simulated sex onstage with approximately 50 people invited on the stage itself in a pantomimed bacchanal,

    Now Agnostic, look at a very popular song (radio staple) from a mere 10 years earlier being performed at the Grammy Awards by Melissa Manchester,

    Picked up your jaw yet? Do you see why some of the older GenX'ers and younger baby boomers were so "out of sorts" over the 90's and early 00's? It was like being transported to another planet. The dancing in bars became primitive "hunching", and music's beats and rythyms became almost tribalistic-right-out-of-a-third-world-country. Women were just wearing tight blue jeans and snug sweaters as "sexy" as recently as 1985-86 (think Gloria Vanderbilt ads with Brooke Shields). By 1991, the tramp-look with lots of skin was ample out there. Goth quickly followed. Grunge was not only fugly, but fuck it was fugly on Gaiadamned purpose. It was bewildering to fly-over Americans, and it all came from one source that had a de facto cultural monopoly on popular music and fashion at the time******

    ***** You are too young to remember, but middle school kids used to get their fashion cues based on what "the high school kids are wearing X or Y". The late elementary school kids, informed by older brothers and sisters wanted to wear what the middle school kids wore. Now they bypass all that shit and just wear what TV channels directed at them tell them to wear, often by idolized "culture" models whom are their idealized selves appearing on these (Nick, Disney, MTV) shows, who usually are photogenic.

  5. TheGheyOracle,

    1991 is when the very depressing, angst-filled-grunge rock became the music of white kids, and when rap became truly ascendant also with kids that would have never given it a chance just a few years earlier (due to the fact that the new rock, grunge, was so unmelodic and a chore to listen to, played by unhappy-looking-drug-addicts-with tattoos).

    The "happy-go-lucky" music was gone by 1991. 1991 is also when MTV started guilt-tripping the hell out of its viewers with left-wing agitiprop and politics.

  6. Anonymous #1, boy do I remember Melissa Manchester's "You Should Hear How She Talks About You". I was one year away from entering tween status when that song hit the charts. When it came to overtly sexual imagery in videos, I can think of three right off the bat that are beyond tame by 2010 standards: "Hot For Teacher" by Van Halen (1984), "Girls Girls Girls" by Motley Crue and "I Want Your Sex" by George Michael (both 1987). What made them so sexy was that it was more or less all about the tease than blatant irony. And about the tweens and preteens getting their fashion cues from their older siblings--you better believe it because when I was a freshman in high school in 1989 I dressed preppy like most of the other kids did--but then again I was taking my cues from what the juniors and seniors were wearing.

    Anonymous #2, you're right in that "happy go lucky" music ended in 1991. Early part of that year I can remember songs like "I've Been Thinking About You" (Londonbeat), "Hold You Tight" (Tara Kemp), "Strike It Up" (Black Box), "Gonna Make You Sweat" (C+C Music Factory), "You're In Love" (Wilson Phillips), "High Enough" (Damn Yankees), etc. Late 1991--I can't think of one to this day.

  7. "Today we have much better entertainment: movies are better, TV is much, much better, video games are orders of magnitude better, and we have the web."

    Movies I doubt, but I'm not a movie buff. TV I hear is better.

    Video games definitely not -- the late '80s and early '90s were the peak, which is why they keep releasing those games (both home and arcade games) for every subsequent system. For some reason no one wants to play games from the N64 / PlayStation / Saturn days. Ditto the last round of games, which people grow bored of after the first time they beat it.

    And you left out music -- that's even more clear-cut than video games. Plus it plays a larger role in setting the cultural mood than TV or video games or blogs.

    In the end, though, the data rule. Even if we granted all of what you say, it very clearly hasn't amounted to much in terms of happiness, excitement, and trust. Rather, we would conclude that better TV and video games and internet content makes people more depressed, bored, and suspicious.

    (I obviously don't believe that, but that is the association that your argument is committed to seeing.)

  8. "She claims that exciting places lots of people go to have low crime because of all the "eyes on the street". Dull gray places nobody goes to are the most dangerous."

    I don't think it's incompatible. I'm just saying that when people are more into being out and about, criminals will naturally come out of the woodwork. Which particular public spaces they target could be subject to the other constraint of "not too many eyeballs."

    I wrote a review of Rohmer's Lady and the Duke awhile ago. I like the few movies of his that I've seen.

  9. Agnostic, I have just read a very interesting article that is right up your alley. It is about how economists have reconstructed the average heights of people over the previous centuries. There is a link between wealth and height. The wealthier a nation is, the better the nutriition and the taller the people become. However, since 1955 Americans have been getting shorter, despite their wealth rising. The opposite is true of Europeans who have surpassed Americans to be the tallest people. The article does not suggest why American height should stangate and decline.

    I suspect that the rise in a high carb diet is the reason why and you would probably find that if you compared the consumption pattern of carbs in America's diet it would explain the discrepancy.

    Article here: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/04/05/040405fa_fact?printable=true

    - Breeze

  10. Agnostic, one video game I keep returning to is Goldeneye (from the N64). It redifined first person shooters.

    - Breeze

  11. You can count the must-play games for the N64 on one hand, and Goldeneye is one. The others are the two Zelda games, Mario Kart, and the Super Mario game (never played it, but everyone praises it).

    That whole generation was a dark age -- Atari in 3D.


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