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Question:

It seems to me happiness is very valued in the U.S. society (and maybe other Western English-speaking countries such as Australia, but I am not sure).

On the other hand, Western Continental Europe seems to somehow value (psychological) suffering, as a sign of one's personality's uniqueness, greatness and depth. As to whether suffering is cool, I am not sure.

Question: What are the intellectual roots of American socio-cultural emphasis on happiness and Western Continental Europe socio-cultural emphasis on suffering?

Validity of the question: In terms of scientific research sustaining the validity of such a question, see Jeanne L. Tsai, and her research on "how culture shapes affective processes (emotions, moods, feelings) and the implications that cultural differences in these processes have for what decisions people make, how people think about health and illness, and how people perceive and respond to others in an increasingly multicultural world." A recent talk where she presents her work, with notions like "ideal affects", "cultural ideals".

Disclaimer: No intention to essentialize, cultures are always in transition, and are always the product of very diverse influences, through dialogue and exchanges of many different forms. Additionnally, each individual has their own peculiar background, personality and their free-will to pursue their own path.

Response to comments:

This question doesn't imply that American people are happier than European people. It focuses only on the intellectual and cultural forces per se, not on how these forces translate in terms of actual happiness or suffering experienced by the peoples. Actual experience of happiness by one individual is a very intricate psychological construct, that may make intervene a bunch of different factors (e.g. genes, socio-economic status, education, health, personal habits) among which culture may play a tiny bit, and of which capacity of influence might be dependent of many factors. Not mentioning the actual experience of happiness of an entire society, construct of which will include another bunch of many factors. And the interpretation of happiness psycho-sociological surveys would themselves be difficult: do we choose the mean as representing the actual experienced happiness of the people, or do we choose the median, etc.?

To remarks on the judgmental evaluation of either two approaches to human condition:

_Not denying that American happiness/positivity culture does not have bad aspects. One example of that might be the character of Richard Hoover in the movie "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006). The "dark side of happiness" has been discussed in this talk by psychologist Dr. Jane Gruber. As recommanded by DJohnson, quoted, in comments, "Pascal Bruckner's Perpetual Euphoria is highly relevant to these discussions"

_On the other hand, other comments also pointed convincingly that focusing on negative emotions can be detrimental. A strong/exclusive emphasis on negative emotions, not to mention their romanticization, can hinder efforts to find solutions to this negative emotional state.

To recall, constant negative emotional state corresponds to what is called neuroticism, and neuroticism is associated with a higher risk of developing mental health problems (e.g. depression, anxiety disorder) (Lahey, 2009).

Neuroticism predicts bad outcomes, such as the experience of "daily hassles, have conflicted and unstable relationships with friends, experience stressful physical health problems, and lose employment" (Lahey, 2009). Mental illness is linked to many bad outcomes, such as substance abuse, legal and financial problems, poverty and homelessness, suicide, among many others (Mayo Clinic).

The tortured genius myth associates mental illness to something positive, which is creativity. However, recent meta-analyses showed only a weak link between creativity and some aspects of some mental illnesses (positive moods aspects of subclinical schizophenia and subclinical bipolar disorder), while high IQ is a non-negligable predictor of creativity.

References:

Lahey, B. B. (2009). Public health significance of neuroticism. American Psychologist, 64(4), 241.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 21:24
  • 1
    You might find this stray comment of Swami Vishwananda illuminating — replace 'postmodernism' by '20th century European philosophy'
    – Rushi
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 7:00

5 Answers 5

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"La culture c'est comme la confiture, moins on en a plus on l'étale.

[Translation: Culture is like jam, the less you have the more you spread it.]"

-French proverb, often attributed to Francoise Sagan

The kind of cultural 'othering' involved in sweeping generalisations about cultural difference, lends itself to bolstering our prejudices, rather than to becoming more open to understanding difference by looking. The Nazi inclination to understand the unique nature and destiny of 'the German spirit' is this par exellance.

Max Weber's book 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' is maybe a little more academically respectable, but I would say is barely less biased. But you can look for roots of spiritual materialism, in the same origins of capitalist materialism. It's hard not to note the geographic distinctions though, in which countries became protestant - one theory goes that hard winters force more planning ahead, than Mediterranean conditions, and that governed susceptibility to protestant reform discourse that focused on justificacio sola fide.

The distinctions drawn between Analytic and Continental thought, are generally highly suspect, and rife with overgeneralisations from people who entirely or almost so, only read from one side of that divide. See for example these answers discussing the issues:

I would focus on the 'cultural canon', the body of literature and philosophy an educated person is expected to have read, and works that are held up or admired as admirable or of high significance (which often people haven't read, both in philosophy and literature).

I feel the impact of Boethius' book 'The Consolation of Philosophy' is underappreciated. It became a crucial bridge between Classical Greek philosophy texts, especially the Stoics, and Christian thought. In a feudal world, it advocated a kind of reconciliation to injustice, by focusing on the purifying benefits of suffering. Here's a gloomy quote from it:

“For in every ill turn of fortune the most unhappy sort of unfortunate man is the one who has been happy”

See this Psychology Today article for more on his mindset.

Boethius was writing just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Parallels can be drawn to the work of Hobbes, writing after the English Civil War, after which he was tutor to the King in exile. Political events have an impact. The seizing of sovereignty by the English Parliament, and success of the British and Dutch East India Companies, opened a path to shedding the gloomy acceptance oc suffering by Boethius, and to scientific and technological innovation relatively free from constraint by the Church.

In France who's Revolutions arrived much later, it was much more the fervour of ideological innovation that offered an escape from feudalism. The Encyclopediasts' mission to make knowledge accessible. Rousseau's ideas, which rapidly found fertile ground to be implimented in the the fledgling United States.

Jonathan Haidt looks at their being a distinction between more individualist honour-based cultures among herders, like Cowboys and Afghan hill tribes, versus more collectivist ethics among agrarian people who must sow and harvest together, like rice-growing cultures and the peoples of Mesopotemia and Egypt. This picture can help address The Needham Question, of why the Modern Era didn't begin in China, despite the cornerstones of it being gunpowder, magnetic compasses, paper & canal locks, all having first been invented there. Geographically Europe is the hardest continent to unify, even the Romans never managed it with Germanians and Vikings that they never conquered going on to undermine European political unity. In addition, Europe has a great mix of pastoral and agrarian people, living and cooperating at close quarters. So there tends tp be a focus on the individualism of Protestant Capitalists, but this neglects that involved was also a communitatian collaborative capacity, to overcome feuding and honour-culture - consider say how deuling was used by the pre-revolutionary French state to suppress dissent.

The impact of the USA, with it's mythos of homesteaders, striking gold, and neglect of cultural canon, is it's own topic.

In short, I'd look to historical contingencies, material conditions, and cultural canons. But I'd note there have always been figures that bridge and subvert divides and overgeneralisations.

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    What do you mean by quoting ""La culture c'est comme la confiture, moins on en a plus on l'étale." at the beginning of your answer?
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 26, 2023 at 15:42
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    @Starckman: Propagating more isn't the only criteria that should be of interest.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 26, 2023 at 17:53
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    Careful, in French, "La culture c'est comme la confiture, moins on en a plus on l'étale." is used to insult or to mocke sarcastically another person
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 1:31
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    Happiness & progress are mythologies, or more accurately 'kitsch landscapes'. They are fine & motivating & impose organisation on experience, exactly until they don't. That is they have hidden fragility, that remaining the top of the cultural hegemony pile conceals. Sartre & Camus wrote large parts of their works in the homeland occupied by a foreign power. The UK has been on a long journey to being a cultural & political backwater. So much worse for Italy - out of which I argue the first Christian university developed. The cycle will go on, & ideological dominion be revealed as power claims.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 2:46
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    @Starckman There are texts of Plessner, Arendt, Adorno, Meillassoux, and others, which are pretty explicit that the culture of uncritical optimism which started with the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism had historically been one of the root causes of totalitarian tendencies. The part of European culture you describe is the product of two World Wars taking place on this very soil and lessons learned, not a deficit that hinders progress. Nietzsche wrote what he did not least because he was disgusted by what later became the Nazis, it is ironic his sister claimed him for them.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 15:50
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I suggest qualifying the proposition regarding America vs. Europe.

E.g., Hemingway was of a rather pessimistic view on happiness, as can be illustrated by this quote

Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.

as well as by reading his works. One could object that he spent his formative years in Paris and was impregnated by the European tradition. However, I suggest that the reason was somewhat different: he knew war. People who lived through wars and other cataclysmic events (like revolutions or the communist/totalitarian rule) are generally inclined to see things in a darker light, which makes pure pursuit of happiness and happy endings in books and films look unrealistic (that is fake - I add this synonym to stress why unrealistic is viewed as a bad thing.)

The US has been largely spared from such events affecting the majority of its citizens - e.g., a couple of millions who participated in the two World Wars is a small fraction of the population, compared to some European countries that were destroyed and/or occupied over and over throughout centuries (e.g., history of Poland) or which had to live through wars lasting decades or centuries.

On the other side, Europe appears rather cheerful in comparison to Eastern Europe - particularly Russia, where the norm is fatalist attitude to life as suffering, with no hint of compensation in terms of recognition of "one's personality's uniqueness, greatness and depth". "Anna Karenina" or Dostoyevsky's work are full of it, but one can find even more vivid examples in the books of Alexander Ostrovski (notably The Storm and Without a Dowry) or Maxime Gorky (e.g., The Lower Depths.)

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    What explains Russian fatalist attitude though? The Russian fatalist attitude vs. the American attitude was discussed (humourously) during the Q&A session of this psychology conference, if you are interested youtube.com/watch?v=E0yokAeSPow
    – Starckman
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 15:26
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    @Starckman Russia has been quite in retard in terms of social development and individual freedoms (I am talking in historical perspective, not necessarily in the current context.) On the other hand, for the US these are the departing point (including "the pursuit of happiness".) On could also mix in the fascinating medieval tradition of danse macabre/totentanz in Europe, and the fact folk tales were far less joyous before being embellished by writers and Disney.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Mar 31, 2023 at 15:47
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    @Starckman I think this sentence captures well the idea. (I might have deviated in the comments from psychological suffering to suffering in general.) Psychological suffering is even seen as romantic in appropriate context. However, this does not mean that Europeans are intellectually richer than Americans - suffering for the sake of suffering is neurotic, and leads nowhere. So one could argue both ways. As they teach on French school: 1) argue why yes, 2 argue why no, and 3) argue why no but yes.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 8:33
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    But as of today, the idea is that the European pessimistic stance is not justified? (At least this is my personal take) Even for the historical past, I wonder if even though the context was as you describe, the Europeans could nonetheless have chosen another more sane intellectual and cultural perspective than the one described in my question
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 11:11
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    @Starckman Europeans today certainly live no worse than Americans (some would even say better - but it is a matter of perspective.) However culture is not an instantaneous snapshot of the current situation - rather a set of knowledge transmitted from generation to generation, throughout centuries (this is why Europeans may sometimes be condescending about the American "culture", dating back only three hundred years.) To summarize: there are no big reasons for pessimism today, but by abandoning their pessimistic outlook they would be rejecting their culture and history.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 11:17
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Some possible cultural roots of U.S. happiness and Western Continental Europe suffering below.

We could easily find counter-examples to the generalizations outlined in this answer: Voltaire was a playful and optimist hedonist, the liberal Austrian school of economics was... Austrian (but they were obliged to migrate because of nazism), Belgium has a whole tradition of joyful and humorous comicbooks, etc. This answer is based on the postulate that everything is a question of proportion, given that hardly anything is black or white. Overall, the trends outlined in this answer are deemed to weigh stronger than the counter-examples/cultural counter-balances that could be opposed to them. For instance, it could be arguable that in France the influence of Rousseau is stronger than the influence of Voltaire, although both were very famous, influential and productive. And the same is true for other regions. Both daoism and confucianism were born in China, but today, in the Popular Republic of China, the influence, of confucianism is stronger than the influence of daoism, if the latter has still any influence at all.

  • Literature

One manifestation of that is when are compared American Romanticism (= Transcendentalism) and European Romanticism. Psychological suffering is not a theme in Transcendentalism, but it is a major one in European Romanticism (German one, French one, and also English one). The European romantics somehow romanticized negative emotional states.

"Melancholy is a disease which consists in seeing things as they are." (Gérard de Nerval, "Paradoxe et vérité", 1844) Fr. "La mélancolie est une maladie qui consiste à voir les choses comme elles sont."

  • Painting

A quick search for "most famous european painting" on Google gives, for modern pieces, Picasso's "Guernica", Géricault's "The Raft of the Medusa", Munch's "The Scream".

A quick search for "most famous american painting" on Google gives, for modern pieces, Hopper's "Nighthawks" and Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware".

  • The figures of the (tortured) artist and the poète maudit

The figure of the artist, sacralized by the European romantics, may be stronger in Europe than in the U.S., where the figure of the entrepreneur, is maybe stronger.

Since for European romantics, the artist was a tortured one, and that art/knowledge/truth is all a matter of beauty (i.e. appearance) (cf. SEP), then we could suppute that (psychological) suffering tends to be cool in Europe.

The tradition of the cool tortured but popular and successful artist, started with Charles Baudelaire, was pursued by Serge Gainsbourg, and now Michel Houellebecq.

To that must be added the figure of the tortured unpopular artist, but no less genius, with Van Gogh, Modigliani, Satie, Nietzsche, etc.

A particular experimental artistic work on the relation between madness (and marginality in general) and art was conducted by the "outsider artist" Jean Dubuffet.

In relation to the "tortured artist" figure is the poète maudit (lit. "cursed poet") one, developed by French poets Alfred de Vigny in his 1832 novel Stello, and Paul Verlaine in his essay Les Poètes maudits in 1884. Other poètes maudits include Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Alice de Chambrier (all French), and the American Hart Crane. "A poète maudit is a poet living a life outside or against society. Abuse of drugs and alcohol, insanity, crime, violence, and in general any societal sin, often resulting in an early death, are typical elements of the biography of a poète maudit." (Wikipedia)

  • Philosophy

Another manifestation of that is the themes of the Continental philosophy tradition (e.g. Nietzsche, Camus, Schopenhauer, Foucault) which is very concentrated on power struggle, absurdity of the human condition, and suffering, while the U.S. philosophical tradition is marked by pragmatism and the analytic philosophy which focus on how to solve concrete problems.

The recognition of the negative aspects of human condition has been pointed in the commentary as a mark of realism on the part of these philosophers, in contrast to the U.S. happiness pursuit deemed to be irrealist. Ironically, these same philosophers (and artists, see above) are often anti-realist when it comes to the capacity of science to apprehend the world and provide solutions and answers to the human condition issues. Scientific progress (from human sciences to natural sciences and engineering) has been driven mainly in the U.S., at least for the last decades.

  • Political philosophy

Wonder whether the comparatively greater influence of socialism (Babeuf and Marx) which sees life in society as an affair of constant collective power struggle of the masses undergoing unfair treatment plays a role (in comparison, the individualist classical liberalism of Locke and Thomas Jefferson has a greater place in the U.S. compared to the Western Continental Europe's socialism tradition).

Continental political philosophy is marked by a strong pessimism.

Many philosophers (Plessner, Arendt, Adorno, Meillassoux, and others) more or less related to the Continental philosophy tradition are "pretty explicit that the culture of uncritical optimism which started with the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism had historically been one of the root causes of totalitarian tendencies" [credits to Philip Klöcking, quoted, for providing these information in the comments].

  • Economics

A strong pessimism about the possibilities offered by economic liberalism also exists in the Continental economic philosophy.

Karl Polanyi believed economic liberalism drives towards fascist barbarism.

Marx, who himself recognized and praised the immense accomplishment of capitalism, advocated for its abolition.

While there are arguments to say that the first ecologist was Rousseau, we find the same line of idea in some contemporary ecologist writings: "There is no doubt that the world has experienced a transformation in material wellbeing in the past two hundred years, and Pinker documents this in detail, from the increased availability of clothing, food, and transportation, to the seemingly mundane yet enormously important decrease in the cost of artificial light. However, there is a point where the rise in economic activity begins to decouple from wellbeing." Jeremy Lent.

And today's ecologists are no less pessimistic.

  • Religion

Western Continental Europe's is historically Catholicism which is heavily centered around suffering (cf. Jesus's statement "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily"). I don't know the role suffering has in English and American Protestantism though. It might be an example of interaction between the different realms, in that catholicism and communism may be intertwined spiritually and historically.

  • History

Wonder to what extent the culture of historical European peoples such as the Vikings (Scandinavia), or the Gauls (France), whose reputation is to be "bloodthirsty raiders navigating the northern seas" (Vikings) and "brave barbarian, living in a primitive state", embodying "the good savage" (Gauls), still have an influence in the identity imaginary of actual Europeans. In France, the Gauls cultural heritage is transmitted to younger generations via the comic book (and its cinematographic adaptations) "Asterix and Obelix" (to give an idea of its impact in the French society, it may be like Superman/Spiderman/Batman in the U.S.). The prowesses of this modern Viking are promoted on a large scale.

Not mentioning the imaginary around Middle Ages history in Europe (cf. the knights and the Crusades).

The American cowboys seem cute in comparison.

As to how it transcribes concretely in the contemporean European cultures, and how it would relate to the happiness/suffering culture, I am not sure.

  • Sports and military

In Europe, rugby is a popular sport that could be compared to American football, but in rugby players don't wear any protection. The French Légion Étrangère (independent from the regular French army) receives a lot of attention from the general public, while their training mindset, and therefore all the imaginary surrounding it, is very Spartan. Seems in the U.S. military, a great focus is given to technological and technical prowess. For instance, Chris Kyle, reknown and highly respected for his extraordinary technical skill as a sniper.

More sophisticated and delightful sports and cultures were historically reserved to the elite (classical music, fine arts, fencing, gastronomy) in Europe.

  • Treatment of psychological suffering

In France (TTBOMK it is not the case in Germany or Belgium for instance), psychoanalysis still enjoys a strong recognition and diffusion (including by cultural elites) among the society. However, psychoanalysis has been found to be a pseudo-science, or at the very least, its model has been almost completely abandoned in the field of experimental psychology and psychiatry in the U.S. (but also all over the world, including Europe and France), where every theory about the human psychology is based on the scientific empirical method, and where the treatment of mental illness is most often the cognitive behavioral therapy, or other treatments taking into account multiple factors such as biology, personal habits, social ties, etc. In contrast, in psychonalysis, depression in children is for instance understood within the myth of Oedipus.

Maybe symptomatically, as of April 2023, the Wikipedia page for the "Dual process theory", which has now largely supplanted the psychoanalytic concept of "subconscious", has no translation in any European language (but is available in English, and Middle-East and East-Asian languages).

Therefore, many cases of mental illness might be left untreated.

Disclaimer: That doesn't mean Western Continental Europe is not influenced by the U.S. way of thinking described (and it is greatly influenced by the U.S.), changing somehow the habits and states of mind (through American pop culture, e.g. Disneyland Paris, American comedies). Neither that the U.S. is not influenced by the Western Continental Europe way ot thinking described (and it is greatly, increasingly?, influenced by it), changing somehow the habits and states of mind, themselves reinforcing back Western Continental Europe (examples of that is the very popular Nietzschean movie "Fight Club" (1999), or the movie "Whiplash" (2014), directed by the French-American Damien Chazelle. As of a more general influence of European culture on American culture and going further back in time is the influence of European Symbolism, Dadaism and Surrealism on Bob Dylan).

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    This answer is full of cherry-picking. You choose examples that support your bias and ignore those that do not.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 6, 2023 at 18:10
  • @PhilipKlöcking I edited my answer to address your comment (in italics). Thank you for your reading and your help.
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 9, 2023 at 6:44
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    It seems like pragmatism is a lot more useful than other approaches, which I would expect then to die off.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 10, 2023 at 0:10
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    But correct/efficient approaches should be developed to their fullest, and made available and advocated for to the large public, and compete against/challenge the deemed less correct/efficient and/or deleterious approaches; so that people can choose and improve their lives. It is the idea of market, as applied to ideas.
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 10, 2023 at 5:45
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    Pascal Bruckner's Perpetual Euphoria is highly relevant to these discussions google.com/books/edition/Perpetual_Euphoria/…
    – DJohnson
    Commented Apr 10, 2023 at 11:48
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This is just to clarify the status of the expression "pursuit of happiness", mentioned in several answers here. This is from the Declaration of Independence. However, not everybody is aware of the fact that the original version was closer to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property (following Locke); see here. "Happiness" was a last-minute substitution (to make everybody happy, I suppose).

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  • Maybe the European constitutions should be changed likewise, in the interest of promoting happiness?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 15:14
  • As a liberal humanist, this does not pose a problem. We must look first and foremost for human welfare, which includes life and autonomy. Autonomy precludes property. One refinement of autonomy is individualism. On the other hand, one refinement of life is happiness.
    – Starckman
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 11:06
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I have to say that your question and answer seem to be based on a series of entirely unsubstantiated assumptions. Your question implies that the US is happier than Europe, that it is possible to characterise a continent in terms of its attitude to happiness and moreover that a continent's attitude to happiness has 'intellectual roots'. (Which reminds me, I had a very interesting philosophical conversation with a Swede recently.) In your answer, you seem to select at random a subset of a potentially endless list of factors one might propose to count for causes of happiness.

I am deeply skeptical about whether it is meaningful to quantify happiness as an average. However, it is done, and there is a world happiness report (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Happiness_Report) which has been compiled annually for a decade now. You might be interested to know that the report suggests that happiness is higher across Europe than in the US- it also presents an assessment of factors that contribute to happiness. I don't know whether suicide rates are correlated with happiness, but the suicide rate in the US is higher than in Western Europe, so that might be another nail in the coffin of your question.

Ultimately your question seems to boil down to one about why there have been notable moody intellectuals in Europe known for their pessimistic outlook on life. As an un-notable even-tempered European intellectual beaming with positivity, I am flummoxed by it. Those whimps needed to get a grip on themselves.

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  • "Your question implies that the US is happier than Europe" No. The rest of your answer is based on this incorrect understanding.
    – Starckman
    Commented Apr 12, 2023 at 9:06

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