Skip to content

“White men don’t dance”

13 April 2007

Jorge Zepeda Patterson on a visit to the strange country to the North:

(original in El Informador de Guadelajara, 7-abril-2007, my translation)

He was a taxi driver like any other in a North American city: brown-skinned, speaking only a little English, but knowing streets he could barely pronounce like the back of his hand. Our driver was Ethiopian, but immediately identified his Mexican passengers as compatriots, both citizens of somewhere other than the first world.

He was a philosopher-taxi driver. His first question confirmed our citizenship with the univerally displaced: “What did we find different in the United States from Mexico?”

The first thing that came to mind was that in our country people do not run alienated from one thing to another, stuffing in fast food , while stressed out in their search for something they never seem to find.

A big smile crossed the driver’s face. We had passed the test.

Exactly,” he said. “I don’t understand rich people. They enjoy things and pleasures we never would dream of in Ethiopia, but they don’t seem happy. In my family, we often could only eat once a day, but I remember us laughing and dancing a lot.”. He added pensively, “People don’t dance here.”

He said it as if it were a scientific discovery, a critical indicator of human unhappiness. We got out of the cab, amazed by our philosophical cabbie, though amused by what we saw as another folk tale of life in the New York jungle.

A few days later, I learned that our Ethiopian taxi driver’s reflections were much more “scientific” than I’d first thought. Leafing through the April issue of “Mother Jones,” I ran across an article by Bill McKibben (, from a new book, “Deep Economy: The durable wealth of communities and the future.”

McKibben’s article is a notable confirmation of our taxi driver’s thesis. The author looks at various research which reveals the growing unhappiness of first-world inhabitants, individually and collectively.


Of course that the human beings are displeased if they cannot satisfy basic needs. But once the required food, shelter, clothing and education are met, all the indicators show that happiness has to do with factors unrelated to family or national income. In other worlds, the middle-class family should have equal or better chances of being happy than those from a wealthy family.

Starting in 1972, the Opinion Research Center of the United States has asked citizens about their level of happiness and satisfaction with their lives. The optimistic responses have decreased substantially over the years, even as per capita income and consumption levels have multiplied several times. And this is not just a subjective measurement. The responses cross-check against other indications like stress levels, work and family conflicts, willingness to help others, worries about personal security, etc. The unhappiness is not just individual, but agrees with indicators relative to society as a whole: family indebtedness, violence, suicides, drug dependency. A 2000 report showed that the average anxiety levels among young Americans was higher than among children in psychotherapy in the 1950s. The author reports that there are similar indicators from Japan, England and other first world countries.

Study after study shows that happiness has much more to do with a person’s relationship with their social network than with the number “satisfactors.” But modern man is going in exactly the wrong direction, turning his back on millenia of “human community” to search for a deeper individualism.

Instantaneous communication (by cellular and e-mail) have meant more communications, but the quality of conversation has diminished. A social psychology researcher, for example, found a correlation between the level of happiness reported by people and the number of intimates with whom the person was accustomed to speak of their problems. North American houses are increasingly larger, and give more opportunity for “members of the family to know the least possible about each other.”

Another writer, Benjamin R. Barber, has labelled the tendancies of modern society as a form of infantile regression and immaturity (in his book “Consumed: How markets corrupt children, infantilize adults, and swallow citizens whole”). We prioritize, Barber says, the image over the idea, pleasure over happiness, egoism over altruism, instant gratification in place of lasting satisfaction, sexual pleasure over erotic love, and dogmatism over doubt.

What we see from all the research, McKibben says, is that people who have friends and intimate family relations, and who are part of social networks are the happiest. While this is not a surprise, it does mean that social ties diminish individual liberties assumed to be the “maximum good.” Being a good friend imposes some sacrifices.

I never learned the name of our Ethiopian taxi driver. But I am sure he is happier than the harried passengers he drives around Manhattan. Most of them don’t dance.

Leave a reply, but please stick to the topic

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: