A May 2017 survey conducted by The Harris Poll revealed that most Americans reported being happier than they may actually be. Of the 5,300 people interviewed, 80 percent reported to be generally happy with their life; however, a 2016 World Happiness Report also discovered that the United State’s level of happiness has decreased since 2008, when the surveys began. The happiness index, the percentage of Americans generally happy or content with their lives, has decreased from 35 to 31 within eight years. The findings of these surveys are surprising because of the importance that Americans themselves place on happiness. A 2014 Pew Research Center study revealed that Americans are more likely to describe their day as “particularly good” more than any of the other 43 countries surveyed. It’s also the idea that these values are perceived — by foreigners — as a reflection of how happy Americans are. For example, there exist Reddit forums that ask for signs revealing American-ness. One that came up is that Americans like smiling to strangers a lot — in particular, “big, toothy grins.” Why does this country place such an emphasis on being happy and cheerful in public? Moreover, why have ideas like smiling and partaking in small talk with strangers become the norm when, on average, we are actually less happy than we are pretending to be? Does this mean American happiness is disingenuous?

A July 4, 2016 article in the New Yorker explains that two people in America may greet each other with happiness and friendliness but might have only known each other a short time. For writer Karan Mahajan, this dynamic is the result of “American life being based on the reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate each other’s privacies.” Consider Brandeis as a microcosm of the United States. Mahajan’s idea is that, inasmuch as a Brandeis student likes another peer — and this friendliness is reciprocated — it is likely that both peers will keep significant spheres of their life private. This fear of treading into private and sensitive matters creates small talk and reciprocal smiling: trivial and inconsequential ways of demonstrating affection without having to discuss personal matters. This fear of violating each other’s privacy also stems from America’s staunch views on individualism. In a 2011 Global Attitudes Survey, 58 percent of the Americans that participated believed the autonomy and freedom of the individual to pursue their goals without interference of the state was more important than “state guarantees nobody is in need.” A 2014 psychology paper by Japanese cognitive psychologists asserts that individualist societies negatively affect interpersonal relationships by increasing competition. However compelling all these different ideas may be, it still does little to illuminate — to foreigners in particular — why the average American is veritably friendly to strangers. Why is there such an emphasis on public cheerfulness? 

A May 3 article in the Atlantic states that Americans smile so much because the country has historically experienced a lot of immigration. Research has revealed that countries with a long history of immigration rely more on non-verbal as opposed to verbal communication. A 2015 study conducted by Brown University discovered that the U.S. population is made up of 83 different source countries. After polling 32 countries to learn how each thought various feelings should be expressed openly, researchers learned that emotional expressiveness correlates with diversity. Thus, it is probable that Americans place an emphasis on public cheerfulness because it is one of the few ways in which they can communicate their goodwill in their diverse country. This leads this argument to an interesting premise: While it was once thought that American happiness was superfluous, the behavior may actually be an adaptation. Despite this, nationals of Zimbabwe, a veritably homogenous country in sub-Saharan Africa, could still find practices such as smiling to strangers and small talk as indeed superfluous — regardless of the fact that it is a kind of survival skill. As such, the lack of small talk in places like Zimbabwe means that it is acceptable for citizens to be publicly upset or emotional. Moreover, it means that friendliness or general warmth is reserved for an exclusive group of people like family or genuine friends. What could trouble Zimbabweans is that Americans practice this adaptation on everyone. Thus, do Americans need to smile and make small talk as much as they do?

Andy Molinsky — an Organizational Behavior professor here at Brandeis University — suggests a business-related answer in a Feb 27, 2013 Harvard Business Review article. He posits that small talk in particular plays an important role in American professional culture. It determines one’s ability to progress in their job and even climb up the corporate ladder. Small talk is critical for building and maintaining business relationships. According to a March 30, 2012 Forbes article, small talk and smiling is a great way to connect with potential clients and make said clients like you — be it networking with investors or serving a Starbucks patron. Considering American congeniality from this viewpoint explains why foreigners often think of Americans as superficial. It is the idea that genuine friendship is not the actual end of the warmth Americans show strangers. Rather, the end is really self-interest. In his book “The Journal of Happiness,” Harvard researcher Adam Okulicz Kozaryn argues that Americans associate their happiness with work. Working more increases one’s chances of achieving success and thus, happiness.

Both Pew Researchers and World Value Surveys have data that suggests Americans’ public happiness is strongly tied to the country’s foundation. Their findings show that a significant fraction of the American population places significant importance on the values of “life, liberty, and happiness.” Doctor Edward C. Chang, a clinical psychologist who runs the Perfectionism Lab and the Optimism-Pessimism Lab at the University of Michigan, believes that this country values independence and happiness of the self so much that these values are ingrained from a young age, according to a March 25, 2015 article in the Atlantic. He goes on to say, “It’s [happiness] ingrained in the culture as an explicit, essential value — we’re hit over the head with American freedom and liberty and rugged individualism so much so that explicit pessimism isn’t actually tolerated that much in our society. It’s treated as a mental illness, a sign of depression.”

To understand American public happiness is to understand that it is a complex social construct that does not even reflect genuine happiness as in other countries. American public happiness is not genuine when considered for what it really is: more of an adaptation than an actual emotion. Perhaps this warrants that we call it something else. Perhaps this explains why it so commonplace, why foreigners find it confounding and at times inappropriate.