DUCKWORTH: That’s the pot calling the kettle to tell them to get off the stove.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: Why are the wealthiest nations so unhappy?
DUCKWORTH: Wow, more and more people are feeling like their days are all bad?
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DUBNER: Angela, we recently did an episode called “Are You Having a Midlife Crisis?” Do you have any recollection of that conversation?
DUCKWORTH: I have a dim recollection that we discussed that.
DUBNER: We did. And we discussed the history of the phenomenon, the characteristics of the midlife crisis, and the prevalence — you shared research which estimates that 10 to 25 percent of the population, I believe that was in the U.S., experiences what we call a midlife crisis. But wait, there’s more.
DUCKWORTH: “Hold the phone,” as they say.
DUBNER: Several scholars, including an economist and several other social science researchers, have just published an NBER working paper — NBER is the National Bureau of Economic Research. And for any listeners out there who like to read economic or related research, I strongly suggest you sign up for their weekly bulletins that give you usually 20 to 30 papers that are super fun to read. And this one is simply called, “The Midlife Crisis.” And it presents some interesting data and makes some pretty provocative conclusions. I’ll read you a quick quote: “This paper documents a longitudinal crisis of midlife among the inhabitants of rich nations, yet middle-aged citizens in our datasets are close to—” that’s not a very well-written sentence. I’m going to rewrite their sentence for them. This is even though the people we’re looking at “are close to their peak earnings, they have typically experienced little or no illness, they reside in some of the safest countries in the world, and they live in the most prosperous era in human history.” In other words: What the “F” is wrong with these people? They didn’t write that. I said that. They do write, “This is paradoxical and troubling.” So, Angela, some of the most fortunate and prosperous people in the world are also more likely, it would seem, to experience a midlife crisis. So, I thought you and I could have a follow up to that original conversation.
DUCKWORTH: It’s like Godfather II. Not like Godfather III, please.
DUBNER: I’m guessing you’ve read this new paper, yes?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And, of course, I wanted to know whether what we had discussed had been updated. Because I think one of the things that we discussed is that maybe there isn’t such thing as a midlife crisis, at least as it’s popularly understood — which is to say, a pervasive, almost inevitable, decline in your wellbeing between the ages of 40 and, say, 60. This new paper on midlife crises among rich nation residents, right — so, wealthy countries like the United States— Let’s just say again what the claim is. The claim is that, if you look at suicide, if you look at severe problems with sleeping, if you look at alcohol problems, if you look even at cognitive difficulties — like, difficulty concentrating, memory, and so forth — if you look at intense job strain (not just, “Yeah, my job is stressful,” but like, “Wow, I don’t even think I can handle this anymore.”) migraine headaches, and extreme depression — if you look at all of those indicators that you could arguably, I think defensibly, say, “Okay, well that would be what a crisis looks like,” that you have these hills that happen at midlife. And they explicitly argue against what a lot of psychologists — and I guess that’s where I had been coming from in our previous conversation — want to say, like, “No, you know, it’s not quite like that,” but this paper wants to say, “Yeah, there’s a crisis in midlife. It just hits you over the head no matter where you look in the data.”
DUBNER: Now, when you say, “it’s not quite like that,” here’s my understanding — and tell me where I’m wrong. Because, what we have now is a paper with a lot of data. The paper uses, as they put it, “panel and through-time data” on approximately 500,000 individuals in a variety of countries.
DUCKWORTH: Right. Half a million people is a lot of people.
DUBNER: And one primary argument — and we discussed this in the earlier episode about the midlife crisis — is that you could imagine a lot of reasons why a given person might have a, quote, “midlife crisis,” in that a lot of life events are coming together there, in the middle. Your children are getting older, and you’re trying to launch them. You’ve been in your life and career for a long time, and maybe things haven’t worked out the way you wanted them to. You may have aging parents that you need to take care of. Maybe your own health is starting to deteriorate. And so, I was positing that maybe those are the drivers of what some people feel contribute to a midlife crisis. The economists say, “No. That is not the case.” Peter Coy in The New York Times wrote about this paper. He writes, “The authors ruled out the possibility that the midlife crisis is an artifact of other things going on in people’s lives, such as the stresses of dealing with marriage, children, and work, et cetera. That’s because symptoms were apparent regardless of whether people had those sources of stress.” So, to me, there would seem to be two primary differences between what this paper — which includes econometrics — is saying with some of the earlier literature from psychology. One big difference may be the size of the data that’s being analyzed. But another one is they are making, to me, a more provocative argument, which is that: No, it is not those explanatory factors. It’s something else. Is that summary about right?
DUCKWORTH: I think so. The psychologists that I know who study midlife would say that, to the extent you find that 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds, and maybe early 60-year-olds are feeling unhappy, feeling anxiety, having trouble sleeping, and so forth, it’s exactly because of the things that are being ruled out in this paper done primarily by economists.
DUBNER: Yeah. I believe, a colleague — and maybe friend — of yours, Frank Infurna, has written about this. And he calls it the “midlife squeeze” — all these different events squeezing the middle of your life. So, look, I don’t think we’re here today to settle—
DUCKWORTH: We’re not adjudicating.
DUBNER: Yeah. The thing about this new paper that got my attention was not so much that there was a new and sharpened statement about the prevalence and disturbing-ness of midlife crisis, and how the causes may differ from what psychologists have been offering — except for one part of that cause, which is that this paper makes a clear argument that it is the inhabitants of wealthy nations who have had not that much to complain about on a measurable, objective basis who are experiencing a lot of this distress. That, to me, is very interesting. It gets into a lot of what psychologists and some economists have talked about for years. The Easterlin Paradox is one that comes to mind. Do you want to give us a quick crash course on the Easterlin Paradox?
DUCKWORTH: The Easterlin Paradox refers to this set of findings that Richard Easterlin, who I believe is emeritus now, but was a professor of economics at University of Southern California. The discovery was this: If you look cross-sectionally at a point in time and you ask, “What does the graph look like if I’ve got happiness on the vertical axis, and income on the horizontal axis?” Let’s say, like, within the United States, are rich Americans happier than poorer Americans? You find: yes. It’s a pretty much linear trend. Then, when you look between countries — because some countries are very wealthy, like the United States, and others, like Togo in Africa, are very poor, relatively speaking, you also find that diagonal line. So, you find that happiness and income go hand in hand, which makes a lot of sense. But here’s the paradox. What Richard Easterlin also found is that when you look at long-term trends — not just happiness and income as a snapshot, but growth in happiness and income, because some countries are getting wealthier over time, for example — then you don’t find that there is this diagonal line, this linear trend. So, the Easterlin Paradox, simply put, is that: At any given point in time, happiness and income are correlated in a country, across countries. But over time, when you look at long-term longitudinal trends, happiness and income are not related.
DUCKWORTH: And he wants to say that the reason for the paradox is social comparison. Wherever I am in the income distribution, I’m comparing myself to everybody else.
DUBNER: Well, you say “everybody else,” but we tend to compare up and not down, don’t we?
DUCKWORTH: That’s true. And that gives me a sense of where I should be when I ask myself, like, “How satisfied am I with my life?” But then, if you look at the long-term trend data, basically what he’s saying is, like, I probably do very quickly run through images of what I understand to be other people’s lives right now. I’m definitely not comparing myself to people in, like, 1825, when things were a lot worse. So, one of the elements of this paradox, which I think should be reinforced, is that life has, in an objective sense — like, flushing toilets, the decline of rape, the decline of murder and deaths due to war — even though you can say, “Oh, these things still happen,” if you look at the grand sweep of history, things have gotten so much better. But the point is that we can’t really factor that into our happiness when we don’t spontaneously make comparisons to people and places in historical eras that we just don’t see. So, social comparison, to me, is how we make sense of the world, and where our emotions come from. And those comparison processes aren’t always panorama. They’re often very tightly focused on what we have right before us.
DUBNER: In response to that, I would say that the downside of what you’re describing is obvious, which is that we may fail to appreciate some of our prosperity, because we don’t have a handy yardstick that shows how much better off we might be to the past, or even to others. On the other hand, an upside of our not comparing like that is that we are constantly striving to make the world even better. In other words, we bank the gains from the past and say, “Okay, great. We no longer have a maternal death rate of, you know, 8 percent, or 12 percent, or 15 percent.”
DUCKWORTH: 50 percent at one point, right?
DUBNER: So, what can we worry about now? And the good news is the human condition is always going to be difficult enough that we find plenty of new things to worry about. What strikes me, however, about this new paper about the midlife crisis — but also a lot of other research from a lot of different areas, some of it in econ — I’m looking at a paper called, “Happiness and Health in China: The Paradox of Progress.” “Life satisfaction in China declined dramatically precisely at the time of its unprecedented economic growth and poverty reduction. We posit that a progress paradox is among the possible channels explaining these contrasting trends.” Here’s another piece I’m reading, authored by someone at the Brookings Institution, about India, in this case. “The most recent economic success story is India.” This was written in 2018. “Our calculations show that life satisfaction dropped by 10 percent from 2006 to 2017.” So, that would also seem, on its face, to be remarkable. Another thing I’d put in the “remarkable” category is: if you look at the work by David Lester and others on suicide, and you see that, rather than suicide being strongly correlated with lower quality of life and lower prosperity, it’s the opposite. David Lester told us in a Freakonomics Radio interview — this was some years ago: “Regions with a higher quality of life have a higher suicide rate.” And Lester attributes this to what he calls the “no one left to blame” theory of suicide. He said, “If your quality of life is poor — and it may be that you’re unemployed, you are an oppressed minority, there’s a civil war going on — you know why you’re miserable. But as the quality of life in a nation gets better and you’re still depressed, you ask yourself: Why? Everybody else is enjoying themselves, getting good jobs, getting promotions. Why are you still miserable? So, there’s no external cause to blame your misery upon.” And that’s what leads Lester to say that higher suicide is an indication of a healthy or prosperous society. So, that’s what we called the suicide paradox. Similarly, this progress paradox — I don’t know, Angie, it seems to me that there’s enough evidence to argue that the causes may be very complicated, but the effect seems real.
DUCKWORTH: Let me clarify something on the suicide data. Just to point out, Stephen, when you said that there’s a paradox, it’s not at the individual level. So, when people say, “Overall, 10 out of 10 — I’m satisfied with my life,” they don’t kill themselves. At the individual level, it’s absolutely not paradoxical. It’s just at the regional level. And I think, again, it goes to comparison. Now, this kind of “no one left to blame” is one version of this comparison thing, but I have a different one. Let me tell you. I was standing on the subway platform — I guess we call it the Regional Rail here in the greater Philadelphia area — like, the subway that kind of goes out to the suburbs. And I’m standing on this platform by myself. It may have been the day after Thanksgiving. I guess it was probably on that Friday. And the reason I’m standing out there by myself is I’m waiting to take the train back from the suburbs, where I dropped off Amanda and Lucy with their grandmother to go and cavort with their cousins who were in for the weekend. And I was heading home.
DUBNER: To work, because it’s Thanksgiving!
DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s the thing. You might have asked me, “Where the heck was Jason?” Because it wasn’t actually my plan to work on Black Friday. I was alone because Jason, for a time, had the not-so-brilliant idea that Thanksgiving weekend — after the turkey was eaten and we were all cleaned up — that he would take that opportunity to go visit his best friend Jonathan in Toronto, which he did for several years, including the year that I was standing on this subway platform. Now, let me paint the picture for you, Stephen. It’s a cold night — unusually cold, even for late November. And I’m alone. And I think I was crying.
DUCKWORTH: And then, by the way, it turns out I was on the wrong side of the platform. So, the train came, and then I watched it pull away to the direction I was supposed to go. And then, I had to, like, go under the tracks and the tunnel, and then, like, wait for another hour. So, the reason I think I was triply unhappy on that evening is that there was a gap. Anybody would be unhappy being on a platform for a train by themselves in a cold, dark night in November. But the gap between what I thought I should be — I mean, it’s freaking Thanksgiving. Everybody else is with their families. Everyone else is happy. And here I am, alone and crying on a train platform. So, I think my friendly amendment to this idea of, like, “Oh, it’s the ‘no one left to blame’ thing” — I think it’s more about that comparison that we’re making. You look around, and you basically have some idea of how happy you’re supposed to be. I mean, I wasn’t feeling that way when I was in the waiting room for my father-in-law when we were in the hospital for, it turns out, weeks and months. Nobody expects to be very happy in the I.C.U. waiting room. We always have this comparison to where we think we should be. And, anyway, I think that’s a lot of what’s going on with the suicide paradox. I think that could be, to some extent, what can go on at midlife, for some people. They might think that they should be somewhere where they’re not.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, Angela shares how she would fix the progress paradox if she were in a position of power.
DUBNER: The National Tsarina of Being Less Unhappy, we’ll call it.
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Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about income and happiness.
DUBNER: It still strikes me that the central puzzle here is: Why are so many people in societies, or families, or cultures that are prosperous — and which, to the outside, may look like they’d be a joy to live in — why are so many people in those places unhappy in the modern world?
DUCKWORTH: But can’t you explain it by, like, ratcheting expectations?
DUBNER: I think it’s more complicated than that. To say that it’s just, like, Maslow on steroids — like, we have all this time to self-actualize, and we want more, and more, and more, I think there’s some legitimacy to that. But I think there might be other things going on. I think that change is generally disconcerting to many or most people. And there’s been a lot of change and upheaval in recent decades.
DUBNER: Yeah. Uncertainty, we know from psychology, but also economics, uncertainty makes us make really strange and often poor decisions. I think, also, technology — which I love — it can separate us from our core communities, families, and so on. The mobility it provides is powerful and useful, but it can also be a little alienating. You’ve made the really good point, comparing ourselves to others can be bad on many dimensions. I would also argue that our technology, and especially our media, make it much easier to compare ourselves to others than it used to.
DUCKWORTH: Back to comparison, by the way — which, I agree, it’s not the only thing, but I think one of the problems with media — and people always focus on social media, but just media in general. Can you imagine living in a little village 500 years ago? And I know people died early, and I know there was nowhere to go to the bathroom that didn’t contaminate — I know there were a lot of issues 500 years ago, but, in your little village, you might be the fastest kid. You might be the one with the most melodic singing voice. You might have made the best bread, or the best dumplings. Now, it’s like, if you’re not Itzhak Perlman, Taylor Swift, Usain Bolt, or Éric Ripert, you’re not the best at what you do. So, even just the advent of television and radio, I think, has made the social comparison process that much more fraught.
DUBNER: And we should say that media — and this is something we’ve covered in Freakonomics Radio — media is often much more negative than real life. And U.S. media is more negative than any media around the world.
DUCKWORTH: Wait. What do you mean? Like, it’s disproportionately highlighting bad news?
DUBNER: In a nutshell, yeah. There was a recent paper by Bruce Sacerdote and some colleagues who analyzed the content of news during COVID from U.S. media outlets and international media outlets — both national and regional — in a variety of places, and found that big, national U.S. media outlets were much more likely to focus on negative elements than neutral or positive.
DUBNER: If you just think about us as, you know, vessels — receptacles — of all this news, not only is there a lot of it, but if a lot of it is negative, it’s powerful, and it’s convincing. It might give you reason to think that your standing, or situation, is worse than another person might demonstrably think. And, going to your point about not being Usain Bolt in your little village — the paper I referenced earlier about happiness and health in China, they make the note that: Look, we all know that the world has urbanized a lot over the last 50 years. Until COVID, and probably soon again, there was a greater share of the world’s population living in urban areas than ever before in history. And part of that is a story of economic prosperity — or at least pursuing economic opportunity. But these scholars writing about the economic progress of China write that urban, educated respondents are more likely to report depression while rural and uneducated respondents are more satisfied with their lives, and are less likely to report poor mental health. Now, you could say the kind of thing that drives a person to want to go to a city is, perhaps, associated with a certain kind of anxiety or ambition that might lead—
DUCKWORTH: Neuroticism or whatever.
DUBNER: Yeah. But I think there’s a lot going on in the world that I’m grateful that these economists, and psychologists, and others have brought to our attention. Because it’s funny: You and I often talk about the futility of looking for the single explanation for anything. I think when it comes to — whether it’s a midlife crisis or general unhappiness, even if it gets to the level of serious depression and maybe suicidal thoughts — there’s a lot to consider that I think we haven’t done a great job as society of really, really teasing out. Inequality is another, that only just now serious scholars are trying to look at: It’s not just an economic issue; what does this actually do to the psyche of the populace?
DUCKWORTH: To happiness.
DUCKWORTH: You know, we might have these kind of, like, social comparison processes that we can’t do very much about, because we’ve inherited them through evolution. And sometimes that doesn’t go well for our happiness. But one of the things that would exacerbate that is living in a country, in a community, in a society, where there’s a big — and widening — gap between the haves and the have-nots. And I’ve found that both the economists and the psychologists are, like, ringing the alarm bells about that. And one of the papers — so, this is David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald — they wrote a paper that was recently published. And the title is, “Trends in Extreme Distress in the United States, 1993 to 2019.” What they document is that you can see these, kind of, like, population averages of extreme distress. And this is the percentage of people who gave the maximum answer of 30 days when asked, “Now, thinking about your mental health — which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions — for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” So, these are people who could not think of a good day in the last month. Not only do you find these upward trends, where it’s like, “Wow, more and more people are feeling like their days are all bad” — both men and women. But if you look at what’s really driving it, it’s a subset of the population. And it’s white people without college. And as we both know, the Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and his colleagues have documented this kind of, like, “deaths of despair.” There is a subset of the American population — they tend to be white men who are not advancing economically or educationally. And, to me, that, again, speaks to this kind of general equality problem. So, in the psychological perspective, I will say: Yes, we all compare. But one way to make everyone’s life happier — you could certainly argue against this: You could just have less difference between the haves and the have-nots, and a kind of “bring up the bottom” approach to social policy.
DUBNER: Yeah. I mean, what you’re suggesting is why a lot of people in this country, including young people, are really into socialism.
DUCKWORTH: Like, Marxism kind of socialism? Or just, like, “socialism lite”?
DUBNER: More like groovy, Scandinavian socialism.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, right. Like Finland.
DUBNER: Well, yeah, yeah. So, you know: very high taxes; much less inequality; a bigger social safety net that covers things like not only education, but healthcare and childcare, parental care, things like that. Although, when people talk about socialism, they often mean quite different things. Some people are talking about Venezuelan style, some people are talking about Danish style, and so on.
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to vote for the Scandinavian socialism.
DUBNER: I am really curious to know what our listeners have to say about what they think may be contributing to this. As you pointed out, Angus Deaton, and Anne Case, and their colleagues have written about these “deaths of despair.” These are often very related to the cohort that lost manufacturing jobs. That is a huge knock-on effect of what was supposed to be the upside of globalization. We were supposed to send over many of our most dangerous and most polluting jobs to China and elsewhere. And, in return, we would get not only really cheap TVs — which we did get — but we were also supposed to retrain our entire workforce to get better jobs. And we didn’t get that. And that cohort really has been left behind. That’s not what this new paper is really about. This new paper is about midlife crisis among, really, let’s just say it: the affluent. So, whether we’re talking about distress among the affluent or the not-, if you have thoughts about what may be contributing to this — we’ve named a lot of factors — let us know, and maybe we’ll play it on the show later. Just use your phone to send us a voice memo. Why do you think so many of the most fortunate people in the world, people living in the U.S. in the 21st century, are having midlife crises or other disruptions — great unhappiness — in their life? Be sure to record in a quiet place, include your name and where you live, and email the voice memo to email@example.com. So, Angela, let me ask you, here is the last line of the abstract of the new paper we’ve been discussing: “We believe the seriousness of this societal problem has not been grasped by the affluent world’s policymakers.” So, you are not a policymaker, but if you were, what would you suggest?
DUCKWORTH: If I were a policymaker — perish the thought, by the way — I would say that, when you think about economic policy and, like, the responsibility of government, it really does have to be about more than dollars and cents. It has to be more than G.D.P. I think how people feel about their life — and whether that feeling comes from something as arbitrary as a social comparison that they make — I think that’s in the purview of policy. So, I guess what I’m saying is that policy has a responsibility to be behavioral, and it has a responsibility to be psychological. I think that would be the last thing — the last line in a memo that I would sign as a resignation.
DUBNER: Okay, so let’s pretend that, somehow, you were shoehorned into a policy position — despite your lack of interest and despite, perhaps, their lack of interest in having you. But you get the platform, and you say, “Look, I’m not a policy person in the way that you think,” but, the way you just expressed really eloquently: “I do believe that policy solutions need to either include or be behavioral” — let’s just take it from there then. Just give us some behavioral advice, even if it’s individual advice. What would you tell someone?
DUCKWORTH: Alright. I’m going to give you a piece of advice from my pulpit, as whatever you just installed me as.
DUBNER: The National Tsarina of Being Less Unhappy, we’ll call it.
DUCKWORTH: I think such a position actually exists, by the way, for the U.A.E.
DUBNER: It does. It’s the Ministry of Happiness.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, here is an individual-level piece of advice that I think is very actionable. If our happiness rises and falls on comparisons, then bring to mind things that, relative to your expectations, are good. So far, nobody’s found a downside — that I know of — of gratitude. At the policy level, I may be the left-wing liberal that everybody imagines academics to be, but I’ll just join in the chorus: It does seem to me like Scandinavian socialism is good. And I want to let Frank Infurna — the psychologist that I rely on when I think about questions of midlife — I’ll let him have the last word, because he — he has argued compellingly from his own data that, in particular, when you look at how happy people are, and you look at certain countries that are wealthy, like the United States, and compare them to other countries that are wealthy, like in Scandinavia or Germany — you find that, actually, the pattern of midlife happiness is different. And it tends to favor those countries with policies that do bring up the bottom through a safety net — through kind of soft socialism. But the gestalt is: an equal society is a happy society.
DUBNER: So, your prescription I very much like, and it did make me think of a few other things that maybe could be useful just as individual, behavioral adaptations. Let me ask you if you think these have any validity.
DUBNER: Try to just compare yourself to people less. I mean, is that possible?
DUCKWORTH: I think you should always try to compare yourself to something, because you know you’re going to want to. And then — I know it’s cheesy. It may seem self-helpy—
DUBNER: To your better self?
DUCKWORTH: Comparing yourself to yourself, yeah. And I will tell you this: I’ve studied a lot of world-class performers. And, at some point in their careers, they learn, and they train themselves to spend most of their attention — not all — but most of their attention, on comparing their P.R., as opposed to what everybody else on the track team is doing.
DUBNER: P.R., meaning “personal record,” not public relations.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, yes. P.R., meaning “personal record.” Like, “me-to-me” is, I think, a more useful comparison than “me-to-thee.”
DUBNER: Okay. Here’s another suggestion. I’m curious what you think of this. Consume less media. Full stop.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, media diet?
DUBNER: I say that as someone who makes media.
DUCKWORTH: I know. That’s the pot calling the kettle to tell them to get off the stove, or something.
DUBNER: I think that’s exactly how the fairytale put it.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t think that made any sense. But anyway, I get your point. And you’re saying this as somebody who has just put more media out into the world.
DUBNER: Indeed. And, you know, we try to be thoughtful, and considered, and judicious. But I think there’s a lot to be said for looking at your own life, and living your own life, and appreciating your own life. You know, Camus once apparently said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of.”
DUCKWORTH: And Voltaire said, “Cultivate your own garden.”
DUBNER: Okay, here’s another one from Lao-Tzu: “He who knows he has enough is rich.” So, I think all of these are the same thing: Rather than looking for what you don’t have that you think will make you happy, try to understand what you do have, and how to be happy with it. But I would even go one step further. And this is a response to what you were saying about inequality, and how it feeds all kinds of distressing dynamics. I think one thing we don’t talk about very much in society anymore is just empathy, generally. We’ve come to conclude that people who are unhappy, or not doing well on some dimension, are there because they messed up, or they’re lesser-than somehow.
DUBNER: And I think that a little bit of empathy can go a long way toward easing your own distress if you can look at yourself in terms of what you do have, even when you think you’re really missing or lacking. And if that doesn’t work, you know, have a sandwich, I guess.
DUCKWORTH: I think that’s wise advice.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen and Angela talk about the drop in maternal mortality rates. Stephen guesses that about 8 to 15 percent of mothers used to die in childbirth, and Angela suggests 50 percent. This may have been the case at one point in time, but it’s not accurate when it comes to historical records from the past few centuries. In 2020, the United States had a maternal mortality rate of about .024, or 24 deaths per 100,000 births. The highest rates of maternal mortality I could find are from the 17th and 18th century; at the high end they’re 1.5 percent.
Also, Stephen and Angela describe Finland and Scandinavian countries as practicing “socialism lite.” We should clarify that Nordic countries are not socialist, in the sense that most of their productive capacity is in private rather than public hands. Freakonomics Radio episode 408 is actually about the question of what counts as socialism. We’ll link to it in the show notes.
Then, Stephen hypothetically dubs Angela the “National Tsarina of Being Less Unhappy.” And the two remark that the job actually exists in the United Arab Emirates. The title in question is actually the “Minister of State for Happiness,” a position which was established in 2016 and is held by “Her Excellency” Ohoud Al Roumi. In contrast, in 2018, the United Kingdom appointed its first Minister of Loneliness — a title which Amiee Lutkin described in a Jezebel article as suggestive of, quote, “a character from an alternate Harry Potter timeline where wizards battle ennui instead of snake magic.”
Finally, Angela butchers the idiom “pot calling the kettle black.” And Stephen mistakenly says that the phrase is from a fairy tale. One of the earliest written versions of the phrase appears in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of Don Quixote — during a time when most pots and kettles were made from cast iron, which blackened when placed over a flame.
That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear from a listener about last week’s episode on swear words:
John COSGROVE: Hello, No Stupid Questions. My name is John Cosgrove. I’m from County Fermanagh in the north of Ireland. But I’ve lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the past 23 years. There aren’t a lot of Irish natives here in the Twin Cities, so we get to swear because people generally think it’s cute, and they think it’s funny. I’ve been on local radio, and I’ve hosted corporate events where I’ve introduced Irish swear words such [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP] and [BLEEP]. Those words are offensive in my country, but they’re not offensive over here, because people are not quite sure about it. And for Angie, I have a little bit of advice. Instead of saying, “Jesus Christ,” maybe she said “Jay-sus Christ” the next time, then she wouldn’t offend anybody.
That was listener John Cosgrove. Thanks to him and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. In fact, you all sent us so many good swearing stories that we decided there’s more to say about it. Stay tuned to Freakonomics Radio for more. And remember, we’d still love to hear your thoughts on why there are so many unhappy people in such privileged places. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name or if you’d like to remain anonymous. And you might hear your story on next week’s show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: How important are first impressions?
DUCKWORTH: You can come to very quick, snap judgments about: How attractive is this person? How intelligent is this person? How competent is this person? It is remarkable how quickly we do that.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Jeremy Johnston, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUCKWORTH: That is a whole new level of nerd-dom, by the way, if you are going to recreationally read NBER working papers.
- David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College.
- Anne Case, professor emeritus of economics and international affairs at Princeton University.
- Albert Camus, writer and philosopher.
- Angus Deaton, professor emeritus of economics and international affairs at Princeton University.
- Richard Easterlin, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Southern California.
- Frank J. Infurna, professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
- Lao-Tzu, philosopher and founder of philosophical Taoism.
- David Lester, professor emeritus of psychology at Stockton University.
- Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick.
- Bruce Sacerdote, professor of economics at Dartmouth College.
- Voltaire, Enlightenment writer and philosopher.
- “The Midlife Crisis Is Very Real and Nothing to Be Laughed At,” by Peter Coy (The New York Times, 2022).
- “The Midlife Crisis,” by Osea Giuntella, Sally McManus, Redzo Mujcic, Andrew J. Oswald, Nattavudh Powdthavee, and Ahmed Tohamy (NBER, 2022).
- “Trends in Extreme Distress in the United States, 1993–2019,” by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald (American Journal of Public Health, 2020).
- “The Easterlin Paradox,” by Richard A. Easterlin and Kelsey O’Connor (IZA Discussion Paper, 2020).
- “Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?” by Bruce Sacerdote, Ranjan Sehgal, and Molly Cook (NBER, 2020).
- Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (2020).
- “The Real Midlife Crisis Confronting Many Americans,” by Frank J. Infurna (The Conversation, 2019).
- “Well-Being in Metrics and Policy,” by Carol Graham, Kate Laffan, and Sergio Pinto (Science, 2018).
- “Happiness and Health in China: The Paradox of Progress,” by Carol Graham, Shaojie Zhou, and Junyi Zhang (World Development, 2017).
- “Midlife in the United States: A National Longitudinal Study of Health & Well-Being.”