Eye on Happiness: Happiness by the Numbers

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CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod gets ready to hit the road in his Cross Country Price Patrol CBS/David M. Russell

Take a guess. If you polled Americans on their happiness, what percentage would you expect to say they were "very happy?"

a) a tenth

b) a third

c) half

d) three-quarters

How about "pretty happy?"

The last time the Pew Research Center polled Americans about happiness, the results painted a rather optimistic picture. Roughly a third (34 percent) of Americans pronounced themselves "very happy," while fully one-half (50 percent) said they were "pretty happy."

While the poll was done five years ago, and there's been a major socioeconomic development since--the Great Recession--the people at Pew report those numbers have remained stable for a very long time.

In fact, another more recent survey, the Harris Poll Happiness Index, backs up that number--35 percent of Americans said they were very happy in 2008 and 2009, 33 percent said so in 2010.

Frankly, these numbers stun me--84 percent of Americans, according to the Pew poll are either very or pretty happy. I think that's remarkable. Maybe I'm hanging out with the wrong crowd, but I don't think 84 percent of the people I run into over the course of the day would describe themselves as very or pretty happy (Of course, more than 20 years in the news business might explain things--a steady diet of conversations with people besieged by floods, fires, hurricanes, war, and politicians could leave a guy a bit out of touch).

Or maybe what people choose to tell you when you ask, "how you doing?" is what's wrong with them, not what's right.

Does that 84-percent figure matchup with your general impressions of how happy we are as a culture and country?

The polls have a number of interesting elements that provide an revealing snap-shots of happiness in our culture. According to the Pew poll, married people are generally happier than unmarrieds, although people who have children are no happier than those who don't.'

Those who worship more frequently are happier than those who don't. A greater percentage of Republicans report being happy than Democrats do.

Rich people are happier than poor people (didn't need a poll for that one), though the super-rich don't report any greater happiness than the average member of the upper-middle class.

People who live in the Sunbelt are generally happier than those who live in the other parts of the country, though retirees are no happier than those still working.

The Harris poll tells us women are more likely to be happy than men, and that Americans get happier as they get older. This poll also breaks happiness down by race, with 40 percent of African Americans reporting being very happy (up from 35 percent in 2008), 39 percent of Hispanics, and happiness for Caucasians dropping to 32 percent last year from 35 percent the year before.

Give the two studies a look. Do the results square with your sense of how much happiness exists in the world and who seems to be enjoying it?

Maybe even more importantly, do the polls ask the right questions to determine how happy we are?

I'd love to hear your take on the pursuit of happiness.

Jim Axelrod is a CBS News National Correspondent. His book "In The Long Run" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May.

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    Jim Axelrod is the chief investigative correspondent and senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning" and other CBS News broadcasts.