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On Happiness and Thanksgiving

Today I am going to write about something I don't know anything about, so those of you with some technical knowledge or particular insights, please feel free to speak up and direct these thoughts. And please don't take anything I write here to be any more than a very simpleminded inquiry into the psyche of our society. I'm not trying to offend anyone, be unnecessarily provocative or otherwise rationalize bad behavior. I'm basically thinking aloud today.

I woke up yesterday to a story playing on Minnesota Public Radio about a dramatic drop in the number of child abuse cases and how the sharp change was puzzling to experts. It was utterly fascinating because, like the experts, I would have assumed that economic hardship would have caused an increase in abuse. From the story:

About a year and a half ago, [Rickey] Morrissey and his counterparts noticed something they didn't expect: despite the tough economy, they weren't getting more calls about kids being neglected or abused.

"That was the logical thought, that probably things would go up," he said. "But it's been the reverse."

Morrissey said in Dakota County, the numbers have stayed flat despite the county's growing population.

The numbers in the state's largest county are even more surprising. Margaret Thunder supervises child protection intake and the investigations in Hennepin county. She calls the number of intake calls to child protection "eerily consistent" over the years -- until two years ago.

"And then all of a sudden took this huge dip in '08, which woke everyone up to start looking at, 'wow, what happened here?" said Thunder.

You can read the entire story, but I'll save you the trouble if your initial reaction to that statement was the same as mine -- the abuse is still happening, it is just not being reported now for whatever reason. The MPR reporter, Sasha Aslanian, anticipated that reaction and had experts indicating that it was not the case. There is actually a decline in abuse.

So what's going on? They propose a theory that the culture has changed and it is no longer acceptable to abuse your kids. I'm not going to dismiss this out-of-hand, but child abuse is absolutely terrible. It is hard to believe we have had this much of a culture shift in that short of a period of time.

One possible explanation for the drop in child abuse is a culture change: America is less tolerant of harming children.

"I think we've kind of turned a corner, maybe," said Connie Skillingstad, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota, a statewide non-profit.

Thirty years ago when Prevent Child Abuse America was getting started, Skillingstad said, its public service messages were designed to convince the public that hurting children was wrong.

"The ads about child abuse would show a parent grabbing a child and maybe heading toward the stove, or a child being locked in a closet -- the horror stories," Skillingstad said. Those ads ran up until a few years ago, "And what we began to learn is that that sort of message wasn't changing anything. That we didn't need to convince people any more."

Make no mistake, there are still plenty of horrific stories in the news about adults beating and killing kids, but Skillingstad said on the whole, there's been a dramatic shift in public attitudes.

So what is going on and is it just a coincidence that the timing of the drop in abuse coincides with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression? Here's where I fear I may leave most of you behind.

My professional mentor and close friend George Orning years ago told me that American happiness was at an all time high during the years of the Great Depression. That is so counterintuitive that it seems impossible, but in fact there are many people that have made this case. Author David Potts wrote The Myth of the Great Depression in which he argues that, while people may not have had material wealth or even reliable food and shelter, they generally reported these times as some of the happiest of their lives. My grandparents spoke fondly of the troubles they endured in the 1930's and early 1940's and how it brought them closer together, framing for their lives those things that were most important.

In my own simple way, I have experienced this myself. While at age seventeen, basic training in the Army was the toughest experience I had undergone in my life, I have fond memories of happiness and a strong feeling of camaraderie. As the changing economy has impacted my business, Community Growth Institute, by dramatically shrinking our workload, I've found the job to be more fulfilling, the people I work with more endearing and the time I get to spend doing other things (such as this blog) more rewarding.

Is it possible that difficult times are making us better people?

I freely admit that this may be only a simplistic hope on my part. I don't propose it as the answer as to why child abuse rates have declined. But there is something comforting about the notion that the cultural rot we have seen, where road rage shootings and people getting trampled at Wal-Mart are a routine part of the news cycle, may diminish as more of us come to grips with the fact that life is hard, there is no easy way through, but the most valuable thing we have in it all is each other.

I am fortunate to spend this Thanksgiving with my wife and two daughters, my parents, my brothers, my in-laws and eleven nieces and nephews, three of which I am a Godfather to. We'll eat good food. Have pleasant conversation. The kids will play and have a fun time. All just like Americans have done for hundreds of years, in good and bad times.

If this is what a world of austerity will ultimately look like -- a slower pace with more family and social connections of support -- I don't know as we'll really miss the "good times". Like my grandparents, we may actually find we have a lot more we now feel thankful for.

Safe travels and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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Reader Comments (3)

I won't pretend to know why evidence of child abuse is down, but on the larger point, it made me recall an interview I heard recently with a woman named Jacqueline Novogratz (http://www.acumenfund.org/). She was talking about working in very impoverished communities around the world and said this:

"Sitting in a slum, even with terrible conditions, even after lots of violence, can hurt at the deepest emotional level, but it also reminds you of just how alive we are...I think that there's something about being much closer in a more raw way to the human experience. And there's something about in our daily lives in the States often, you know, we hide death, we hide a lot of infirmity, we don't even really see where our food is grown or how the animals are killed before we might eat them...So there's a veneer in many ways over a lot of what makes us very deeply human. When you're living in a place undergoing change and turmoil like that, the veneer is just stripped and you are right there living in a way that is just deeply, deeply human."

I won't pretend for a minute that our economic troubles in America are comparable to the challenges faced in places like Haiti or any other impoverished country. But I find myself, in an odd way, yearning for the veneer to be stripped away. Maybe that is why happiness was higher during the Great Depression. The veneer had been stripped away and people were just being people - perhaps struggling to put food on the table, but able to experience life - from the greatest joys to the greatest sorrows - in a raw and exhilirating way that just makes you appreciate being alive.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen Oleson

Thank you, Ben. That is exactly what I was trying to convey, only said more poignantly. I'm thinking about your entire family this Thanksgiving, the ones you are sharing a meal with and the ones we hope to bring home soon.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Thank you for this hopeful take on the economic situation we face as a nation. Violence perpetrated on children is some of the very worst of the human condition and more than anything I want to be able to keep hope alive that we can learn to be more caring and compassionate toward others as we go about our day to day lives. We have a lot to learn, but we are capable of great things. Your article lifted my spirits.

November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterConnie Skillingstad
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