According to a recent Survey, Europeans are on average not as happy about their lives as their American counterparts. It appears that Americans believe their future will be better and their present isn't so bad. This German-based blog points to major publications there that like to describe doom and gloom in American life inspite of evidence to the contrary. You can check out the survey for yourself, but anecdotally, my experience confirms the survey results.
When I was an exchange student in the eastern state of Saxony, Germany 3 years after reunification, I noticed right away the difference in expetations between German and American high school students. I had just left an environment dominated class ranking, college guides, preoccupations with majors, GPAs and AP courses and early admissions to one were the future beyond high school was never a subject of discussion, much less grades. I do concede that the context in which I was in was not the most typical for a German gymnasium (elite high school), as its curriculum was being transformed to better emulate West German standards. In a way it was quite a nice time for me to be carefree about my prospects that year, but I always wondered what would become of the others, who were all quite smart and capable. But since the future never seemed too important to them, what they did in the present to prepare for it didn't seem to matter all that much. There's no shame in being second-best in Europe, which is quite opposite to what we tell ourselves here in the U.S., where we're all 'winners'.
Another instance where this American optimism was evident was when my German host brother took a particular attraction to the American girl who was part of my exchange program. She was your typical all-American achiever, with plans to enter Columbia and an amazing ability soak German, with a very fun personality. My host-brother, who was quite the ladies man, had never encountered such a personality in all the cute German girls he had dated. He confided in me that all the German girls he had been with were rather dreary and uninspired compared to her. And though I have met some very nice and even quite intelligent German girls, they were in no rush to get out in the world and make their mark and beat out everyone else. Still the future Chancelor of Germany might just break the mold...
What explains this difference? I'll try to answer that in a future post.