People Living Lives of Quiet Despair

In general the epidemiological data show that only 20 percent of Americans are flourishing. The rest are either languishing or just getting by. Maybe they remember a time in their lives when things were coming together easily; there wasn’t a lot of self-concern, self-scrutiny, or self-loathing because they were focused outward and contributing to the world. But now they’re just doing the minimum necessary to get by. This “just getting by” mode is not depression or mental illness. It’s merely people living lives of quiet despair.

Barbara Fredrickson, in an interview on


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

4 thoughts on “People Living Lives of Quiet Despair”

  1. I always resist “data” such as this. The collection of such statistics on such a subjective condition as “doing well” or “flourishing” can never provide meaningful information. A seat of the pants view may be just as accurate. I suspect most people are doing better than we were in the 1930’s. I suspect the 39 million people in families receiving an average of $39,000 a year in welfare payments may be “languishing” to keep the payments coming, but they cannot all be in despair. I know some who are enjoying life quite well without working, except for a little cash employment to supplement their incomes. And if you look at the students’ cars in suburban school parking lots, go to the malls, the stores, the travel business, Disney, the innumerable and filled to capacity sports arenas with their $50+ tickets, or stand in line to buy stuff, one can only wonder where does all the money come from?

    If there is self-loathing or purposelessness in life, it not so much about money or employment, but about the corrupt life style of our new elites that filters down to everyone, and the obvious incompetence and corruption of our political leaders. To cover their misdeeds, these pols hand out money to every constituent, and have convinced too many that they are victims. Being a “victim” is so profitable today that it is contagious and growing. Poverty amd misery expands in direct proportion to the funds available to alleviate it.

    1. I understand your point, and it is good to question such “data.” What struck me here was not the percentage, but rather the line that “it’s merely people living lives of quiet despair.” This has a ring of poetic truth to it. We can’t measure people’s lives solely by material wellbeing, which I do think has increased overall.

      Whatever the cause of any self-loathing or purposelessness there may be, the point Fredrickson is making here is that there is a great need for deeper purpose in our lives, and there are specific actions we can take to increase our well-being and positivity. It’s really quite a great interview, and my point in posting it is in the hope that the reader will be curious to find out more about what we can do to generate well-being and positive feelings. Check it out and let me know what you think.

      1. Daniel Goleman has written several books on this subject and, like most psychologists, believes that a positive and optimistic attitude is predictive of success in life. They also believe that while a positive vs negative outlook is an inborn temperament, they can be tempered by training and experience. Underlying both is an outlook psychologists call self-efficacy, the belief that one has mastery and control over the events of one’s life. Martin Seligman believes that ways of thinking, habits of mind, can be changed, improved, to create a more positive brighter outlook on life. And, clearly, a sense of humor helps!

        Dr Vaillant calls optimism one of the successful coping merchanisms and is predictive of who will grow old gracefully, happily and healthily. It is a “mature defense” against the vicissitudes of life. Parents, teachers, and coaches have a role to play in instilling such outlooks on their children. In my opinion, optimism must be kept for your outlook over what you can control, but kept at a skeptical distance when evaluatuing political or business matters that are out of your control. John Derbyshire wrote a good book called “We Are Doomed” about why when it comes to our schools and government there is no reason to be optimistic. Children can master this distinction–positive outlook for what they can accomplish, skepticism for many major matters confronting the country. The difference is vital. For example it is silly to Hope the nation will get better, while claiming victim status for yourself because the odds are stacked against you!

        Most writers suggest that the best bulwark against defeats is a set of guiding principles, a knowledge of absolute truths, a vanishing resource in todays morally relative and self–gratifying culture. Honesty and integrity used to be enough for a person to hold his head high. The need for will power and emotional restraint are essential for your child to grow up into a mature and respectable adult. John Wooden’s books emphasize the role of such moral and personal honor in contributing to a happy and successful adult. Inner contentment comes from living a life well, and living it within moral boundaries. Children that grow up without such grounding never become adults, and their potential genius is wasted. I think the writers mentioned have more useful things to say on the subject than the researcher quoted in this post.

      2. Bill, what a great summary of some of the seminal thinkers in this field of research! These writers most definitely have useful and highly important things to say, and thank you for providing such an elucidated round up for me. What is interesting about Frederickson (not specific to this interview, but illuminated there as well), is that she renders into everyday language the work that Losada did on the ratio of positive to negative interactions. This research–the so-called “Losada ratio”–is something that Seligman references when he discusses positive psychology.

        It’s something that’s imminently measurable, and I believe has immediate relevance and applicability to a school context. We can cultivate childrens’ sense of self-efficacy when we focus on their character strengths, and apply those strengths to their areas of weakness, as opposed to simply harping on their deficiencies, which is the inevitable result of a highly competitive school culture founded on high stakes testing.

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