Patriotism makes you happy. Nationalism does not.
“How to build a life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, addressing questions of meaning and happiness.
“I love man who can smile in trouble, who can draw strength from distress and become courageous through reflection, ”wrote Thomas Paine in his brochure series The American crisis. It was December 1776, shortly after the start of the War of Independence, and Paine envisioned the purpose and promise of patriotism in building a new nation free from British influence. A happy patriot, in his opinion, was one who drew strength and very joy from the nation, especially in adverse circumstances.
Almost 250 years later, few would say that the United States has not recently experienced adversity, including extreme political polarization, civil unrest, the coronavirus, and more. These threats failed to bring out the happy patriot in us: Gallup saw a seven-point drop in the percentage of Americans who say they are “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be American from 2019 to 2020. This deterioration is particularly dramatic at the moment, but it has lasted for almost two decades. In 2003, 69% said they were “extremely proud”; last year, 42 percent did so.
No matter where you live, patriotism can be a hot topic. The political division is more and more toxic; apparently the only thing the two sides can agree on is that their country’s ideals and institutions are a sham. Populism and demographic tribalism are on the rise around the world. However, I am not yet ready to throw in the towel. On the contrary, I think that a healthy patriotism can cross the whole ideological spectrum. And we will all be happier for it.
A number of scholars have studied the link between patriotism and happiness, and found it to be strongly positive. For example, a 2011 study in Psychological sciences looked at 31 countries and found that national pride significantly predicts well-being. Another study found that the relationship between ‘national satisfaction’ and personal well-being was strongest in poorer countries, which the authors explained by noting that people in the most difficult personal circumstances tend to judge their satisfaction in life in terms of societal success.
For millennia, the concept of patriotism was tied to a shared ethnicity, religion or language; the love of the country without these elements seemed inconceivable. This changed with the American experience. Like Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in a letter to his friend Ernest de Chabrol after his arrival in the United States in 1831, “Imagine if you can… a society comprising all the nations of the world: English, French, German… All people with languages, beliefs and different opinions. In short, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without national character.
And yet Americans were particularly patriotic. Tocqueville will move to write in Democracy in America about the cranky “irritable patriotism” breed of the new nation. Some citizens met “for the sole purpose of announcing that they disapproved of the conduct of the government.” Meanwhile, another group “would unite to proclaim that the men in office are the fathers of their country.” But as disagreeing as they are, no American would allow a foreigner to criticize their country. American patriotism, Tocqueville discovered, was the shared civic spirit of a competitive scum dedicated to nation building together.
Over the next century, this type of patriotism became less strange in the world as societies became more demographically diverse and shared values became more central to national identity. In 1945, George Orwell defined patriotism as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but which one does not wish to impose on others”. He opposed patriotism to nationalism, by which he meant “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified as insects and that entire blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled as” good. “Or” bad “; also, “the habit of identifying with a single nation or with another unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests”.
Nationalists can identify as patriots, and some people opposed to the two ideologies might claim they are equivalent. For national and individual well-being, however, it is important to distinguish them. Following Tocqueville and Orwell, we could define patriotism as civic pride in our democratic institutions and shared culture, and nationalism as a sense of superiority or identity, defined by demographics such as race, religion or language. Modern social sciences find a major difference in the quality of life between the two. In 2013, a transnational team of political scientists measured the effects of each on the levels of social trust and voluntary association, both of which are strongly positively associated with personal well-being. They found that civic pride usually pushes both up and ethnic pride pushes them down.
Given the evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that patriotism, as we have traditionally understood it in the United States, is good for our happiness. Meanwhile, nationalism (by Orwell’s definition) is not. If we are heading towards the latter in our society – as many argue – then, in terms of happiness, we are heading in the wrong direction.
NOTwhere does it matter your political views or where you live, you can cultivate a healthy Tocquevillian type of patriotism, for your own benefit and to help change the national mood. This requires you to follow two guidelines.
1. Emphasize the positive.
There is nothing wrong with expressing any disagreements you may have with your fellow citizens; indeed, a competition of ideas is important for a free society. But remembering what doesn’t divide you – what you’re all proud of – is also important. In the United States, for example, 91 percent of people are proud scientific achievements of our country; 89 percent are proud of our military; 85 percent of our arts and culture. When you are frustrated or angry about what is wrong with your country, take a moment to think about the things it is doing well.
To make it easier on yourself, try a tip developed by marriage expert John Gottman. He argues that all relationships have negative interactions; the problem is when these overwhelm the positives. Gottman’s magic report from positive to negative for a healthy marriage is five to one. For every complaint, he recommends making sure you offer five words of praise. Why not try it out while also talking about your country?
In the United States, it is especially easy to give thanks even as we express our dissatisfaction with the evils of our system. Unlike so many places in the world, we can voice our complaints out loud with little threat of harm from the government. If you have the freedom to express your grievances publicly, celebrate it and remember the people who sacrificed for your right to do so.
2. Make your protest patriotic.
Patriotic love is not blind to problems, remember the irritable patriots of Tocqueville, who both denounced and praised the government. It is not a contradiction in terms. It is a recognition that things can be better than they are, if we work together for change.
This was at the heart of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message, who used overtly patriotic language to challenge Americans to live up to their own national ideals. “We will achieve the goal of freedom in Birmingham and across the country, for America’s goal is freedom,” he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Likewise, in his famous speech “I Have a Dream”, King recited an entire verse from the patriotic hymn “You are my country. “
For King, patriotism wasn’t about ignoring what was clearly wrong with America; it was rather an expression of faith that we could to be. You can also adopt this attitude by framing activism for change based on your country’s stated ideals.
For its benefits on happiness and other ways to mend national divisions, patriotism is worth trying to rebuild. Some would dispute this, including, perhaps, eighteenth-century writer and moralist Samuel Johnson, who allegedly mentionned, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
This quote comes from James Boswell from 1791 Samuel Johnson’s life, and Boswell usefully elaborates: “He was not talking about a real and generous love for our country, but of that supposed patriotism which so many people, of all ages and in all countries, have veiled their personal interest.
Obviously, there are people in the United States and elsewhere who use patriotism as a mask for their self-interest. But many ordinary people display patriotism at its best: genuine, generous love for their fellow citizens and shared ideals. It is happy patriotism that can unite a nation around mutual commitment, a celebration of values that transcend disagreements, and a belief that progress is possible, together.