Even folks in the Optimist Club are having a tough time toeing an upbeat line these days. Eighteen members of the volunteer organization’s Gilbert, Ariz., chapter have gathered, a few days before this nation’s 232nd birthday, to focus on the positive: Their book drive for schoolchildren and an Independence Day project to place American flags along the streets of one neighborhood.
They beam through the Pledge of Allegiance, applaud each other’s good news — a house that recently sold despite Arizona’s down market, and one member’s valiant battle with cancer. "I didn’t die," she says as the others cheer.
But then talk turns to the state of the Union, and the Optimists become decidedly bleak.
They use words such as "terrified," "disgusted" and "scary" to describe what one calls "this mess" we Americans find ourselves in. Then comes the list of problems constituting the mess: a protracted war, $4-a-gallon gas, soaring food prices, uncertainty about jobs, an erratic stock market, a tougher housing market, and so on and so forth.
One member’s son is serving his second tour in Iraq. Another speaks of a daughter who’s lost her job in the mortgage industry and a son in construction whose salary was slashed. Still another mentions a friend who can barely afford gas.
Joanne Kontak, 60, an elementary school lunch aide inducted just this day as an Optimist, sums things up like this: "There’s just entirely too much wrong right now."
Happy birthday, America? This year, we’re not so sure.
The nation’s psyche is battered and bruised, the sense of pessimism palpable. Young or old, Republican or Democrat, economically stable or struggling, Americans are questioning where they are and where they are going. And they wonder who or what might ride to their rescue.
These are more than mere gripes, but rather an expression of fears — concerns reflected not only in the many recent polls that show consumer confidence plummeting, personal happiness waning and more folks worrying that the country is headed in the wrong direction, but also in conversations happening all across the land.
"There are so many things you have to do to survive now," says Larue Lawson of Forest Park, Ill. "It used to be just clothes on your back, food on the table and a roof over your head. Now, it’s everything.
"I wish it was just simpler."
Lawson, mind you, is all of 16 years old.
Then there’s this from Sherry White in Orlando, Fla., who has a half-century in years and experience on the teenager:
"There is a sense of helplessness everywhere you look. It’s like you’re stuck in one spot, and you can’t do anything about it."
In 1931, when the historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase "The American Dream," he wrote of "a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."
In 2008, using history as a yardstick, life actually is better and richer and fuller, with more opportunities than ever before.
"Objectively things are going real well," says author Gregg Easterbrook, who discusses the disconnect in his book "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse."
He ticks off supporting statistics: A relatively low unemployment rate, 5.5 percent in June. (Employers did, indeed, cut payrolls last month by 62,000 jobs, but consider the 10.1 rate of June 1983 or the 7.8 rate of June 1992.) Declining rates of violent crimes, property crimes and big-city murders. Declining rates of disease. Higher standards of living for the middle class and the working poor. And incomes that, for many, are rising above the rate of inflation.
So why has the pursuit of happiness — a fundamental right, the Declaration of Independence assures us — become such a challenging undertaking?
Some of the gloom and doom may simply reflect a society that demands more and expects to have it yesterday, but in many cases there’s nothing imaginary about the problems.
Just listen to farmer Ricardo Vallot, who is clinging tight to his livelihood.
Vallot expects to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on diesel fuel to plant and harvest his family’s sugar cane crop in Vermilion Parish, La. His two combines burn up to 150 gallons a day, and with diesel running an average of $4.68 a gallon in the region, he sees his profits burning away, too.
"My God, it’s horrible, it really is," the 33-year-old says, adding: "If diesel goes north of five, it will be really difficult at the price we’re getting to stay in farming."
Stay-at-home-mom Heather Hammack grapples with tough decisions daily about how to spend her family’s dwindling income in the face of rising food costs. One day, she priced strawberries at $1.75. The next day, they were $2.28.
"I could cry," she responds when asked how things are.
"We used to have more money than we knew what to do with. Now, I have to decide: Do I pay the electric this week? Do I pay for gas? Do I get groceries?" says Hammack, 24, who lives with her boyfriend, a window installer, and their 5-year-old son in a rented home in rural Rowlesburg, W.Va. "You can’t get ahead. You can’t save money. You can’t buy a house. It just stinks."
Those "right direction, wrong direction" polls — the latest of which, in June, had only 14 to 17 percent of Americans saying the country is going the right way — show a general level of pessimism that is the worst in almost 30 years. Those feelings, coupled with government corruption scandals, lingering doubts over whether the Iraq war was justified, even memories of the chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina, have culminated in an erosion of our customary faith that elected leaders can get us out of a jam.
Says Arizona retiree Dian Kinsman: "You have no faith in anybody at the top. I don’t trust anybody, and I’m really disgusted about it."
Stoking the furor is that Americans seem to feel helpless. After all, how can the average Joe or Jane control the price of gas or end the war?
"How am I, a little old West Virginia girl, going to go out and change the world?" asks Hammack.
Still, others suggest a lack of perspective and a sense of entitlement among Americans today may make these times feel worse than they are.
At 82, Ruth Townsend has experienced her share of downturns — in her own life and that of the country. She suffered a stroke years ago that left her in a wheelchair, and lives now in an assisted-living center in Orlando, Fla. Townsend recalls World War II and having to ration almost everything: sugar, leather shoes, tires, gas.
"You made do with the little you had because you had to. You shopped in the same stores over and over because you HAD to. We had coupon books and stamps to figure out what we could have," Townsend says. Americans have gotten so used to "things," she says, "that we can’t take it when we hit a bad patch."
Allison Alvin condemns an "out of style" values system, in which even kids have cell phones, credit card debt is out of control and families purchase four-bedroom homes they can’t afford instead of the two-bedroom ones they could.
"I’m mad at us … all of my fellow Americans. Maybe a little hardship would be good for us," says Alvin, who at 36 has a job as a freight exporter in Cincinnati, a husband with a factory job, two healthy children, her own home and four cars, all paid off.
At the same time, she acknowledges feeling that "things are getting worse."
"When you’re my age, you feel like you should be improving — more financially stable, instead of hand-to-mouth. It doesn’t matter that we’re better off than (others). It still hurts. It’s still painful."
Easterbrook ascribes some of this to the media, noting that talk of "crisis" has become almost trendy — especially in an election year when politicians and pundits alike seem to feed on discontent as a catalyst for change, or ratings.
Round-the-clock saturation, shouting commentators and ceaseless images of "whatever’s burning or exploding," he says, "give you the impression that the whole world is falling apart." Media reports noting that the world isn’t rallying around U.S. policies also build frustration.
Perhaps that’s why one of the Arizona Optimists, Marilyn Pell, couldn’t help but raise her voice when referencing something she’d heard on the news: That gas prices might rise to $7 a gallon by 2010.
"What do you mean I’ve gotta pay $7 a gallon?" she exclaimed, even though it was just a prediction.
Such anxieties have concrete implications — affecting how we spend, how we vote and whether we are willing to take risks. These collective "bad moods" matter because they help steer the country’s direction just as the country’s direction shapes our mood. Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed this when he said in the depths of the Depression: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Perspective also varies between the haves and have-nots.
In California’s Silicon Valley, one of the wealthiest places, the nation’s housing crash can be seen as a healthy correction and a buying opportunity, and high gas prices are unpleasant, yes, but not unbearable.
Maybe it’s no surprise that at Ferrari Maserati of Silicon Valley, where $200,000 models are still being snapped up, sales manager Larry Raphael says, "We really haven’t been affected by what the media says is a low mood in the country."
Yet in these rarefied ZIP codes, others are affected — even if they feel personally secure. "I worry about my gardeners and how they’re dealing with the cost of fuel, for example. Floods, fires, there are so many things going on that are going to cost everyone money," says Suzanne Legallet of Atherton, Calif.
Whether things are going well or not, it is part of human nature to be dissatisfied with the present state of things, says Arthur Brooks, professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University and the author of "Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America — And How We Can Get More of It."
"Very few Americans wake up in the morning and say, ‘This is an unbelievable country. I’m going to go to the supermarket, and there’s going to be food. When I go and vote, nobody’s going to beat me up,’" he says. "We’re horrible at appreciating the status quo. We’re really good at appreciating positive changes."
With that in mind, then, Americans might take heart. Throughout our history, tough times have proved to be learning moments that provoked course corrections. The Civil War brought an end to slavery. Sit-ins and mass demonstrations prompted anti-segregation laws. Sept. 11 led to new anti-terrorism vigilance.
As Bob Dylan once said, "Chaos is a friend of mine."
At least it can be.
Perhaps, out of these trying days, we may see a more comprehensive energy policy, a sooner-than-later resolution of the war and, even, a more profound sense of personal responsibility — the motivation we needed to spend within our means, or make use of car-pool lanes and mass transit.
It’s happening already, in big ways and small.
Hammack planted a garden of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots. "If I can save a few bucks," she says, "I’m going to."
In Louisiana, Vallot buys fuel in bulk now and is looking at ways other farmers might pool together to bring the cost of diesel down further. "We have to take matters into our own hands," he says.
Many have, and that certainly erases some of the helplessness that begets despair. But Americans also must recognize that happiness — the stuff that truly fulfills and gratifies — comes not from what we own but who we are, says Dr. David Burns, a psychiatrist at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.
"We tend to base our self-esteem on certain things that we think we need to be worthwhile as human beings. A lot of us base it on achievement, intelligence, productivity. Our sense of self-esteem gets tied up with our career, our income. So when things start reversing, you begin to feel like less of a person."
Nevertheless, says Burns, "Where joy comes from is a completely different place."
For Ernestine Leach, it’s keeping the faith that this, too, shall pass.
"I think that it’s so deeply rooted in us," the 59-year-old substitute teacher says on a recent Sunday as sunlight filters through a stained-glass window at First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. "It’s all that most Americans … have ever known: That things did get better."
Her minister, the Rev. Dumas Harshaw Jr., has noticed some new faces in his pews as troubles deepen. He senses that more Americans are "in a wilderness, psychologically and spiritually," and "are trying to find grounding."
As Harshaw tells his congregation, we Americans are in a "season of testing."
Katy Neild, the Arizona Optimist whose son fights on in Iraq, understands that better than most. She worries about her child, and about the many other dilemmas confronting Americans.
"Did I cringe when I filled my car last week? Yes," she says. "But 100 years from now, if I were still alive, would I really care that I paid $4 a gallon for gas? No. I care my grandbaby is safe and she’s well and she has a good place to live.
"Your joy can’t be about your circumstances."
As she says this, the other Optimists nod in agreement. Then their president, Susan Kruse, begins reciting one of the 10 tenets of the "Optimist Creed," and the others soon join in, their smiles returning.
"Forget the mistakes of the past," they chime in unison, "and press on to the greater achievements of the future."
In the end, that’s what the Optimists do. They get their troubles off their chests, debate possible solutions — and then move on to doing what they can to make some positive changes in their communities, and in their own lives.
A birthday lesson for all Americans, perhaps.
Contributing to this report were AP Writers Allen G. Breed, Martha Irvine, Todd Lewan, Martha Mendoza, Vicki Smith and Becky Bohrer.