The Morning File: How are you? 'Excellent'? Join the 14 percent

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The headline in this newspaper Wednesday couldn't have been any clearer, while strategically placed next to an article about the Hiroshima bombing anniversary and above a photo of a wrecked SUV that plummeted onto and destroyed a Mercedes-Benz:

"Region's residents are happy with their lives, survey shows"

Well, we're wondering if anyone asked the owner of that Mercedes in Oakland how he felt about his life. ("Yeah, pretty good. It was maybe a little better yesterday, but what the heck -- you gotta make some lemonade out of those plummeting SUVs.")

The story provided results of a recent survey of some 1,800 residents spanning 32 area counties by PittsburghToday and the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. It found that 14 percent of those interviewed rated their overall quality of life as excellent, with another 38 percent calling it very good and 29 percent more pronouncing it good. That meant about four of every five people were upbeat, or at the very least had taken their Prozac that morning.

What a contented group we are! And just imagine how much even higher our satisfaction level would be if recent years had provided better roads, bridges, mass transit, baseball, wine selection, legislative integrity, property reassessments, institutional health care leadership and police restraint.

Still, we'd like to know the identities of these 14 percent are who call life "excellent," as we don't seem to encounter them much. When we do that habitual "How are you?" question with people we casually run into or speak to on the phone, we rarely get an "Excellent! You should be so lucky as I am!"

Nine times out of 10, the response is "Pretty good -- how about you?" Forgive us if we seem overly suspicious here, but it's almost like people automatically say they're doing "pretty good."

Either the human race is conditioned to be reflexive liars, or people just don't want to take the time to acknowledge what might have gone right or wrong over the past 24 hours -- such as their favorite sport being tarnished, which would prompt a more honest response like, "Ah, everything's going downhill. I don't think badminton will ever recover from the game-throwing at the Olympics."

The Pittsburgh Regional Quality of Life Survey didn't offer much enlightenment about the 14 percent of the respondents who consider their lives only fair and 5 percent assessing theirs as, unfortunately, poor. We're guessing the latter group is primarily made up of 11 p.m. news watchers who find it hard to say a good word about a world saturated with homicides, fires, car wrecks and bad weather.

It would be nice if such surveys could be updated on a weekly basis by hooking up gizmos to all of our televisions. We'd then be able to actually gauge the impact on our collective psyche of, say, Port Authority cutbacks or a big Steelers win or a string of 92-degree days.

The Pitt survey authors said that residents of the region actually rank their happiness somewhat higher -- 7.8 on a scale of 1 to 10 -- than has been reported by Americans overall. And yet, more than twice as many people perceived the region's quality of life as getting worse in recent years compared with those who said it was getting better.

We're No. 62! Yes!

That makes things sound like more of a mixed bag than a success story, and that seems backed up by "The Complete Happiest Cities List," put out by Success magazine in May. It examined a number of factors supposed to indicate likelihood of well-being, such as marital status, income disparities, health, exercise and volunteering.

Of 100 cities, Pittsburgh placed only 62nd on the list, which is something you won't hear touted much by the local civic boosters. (Evidently, we'd be happier if we were in Bridgeport, Conn., Wichita, Kan., or Montgomery, Ala. -- zounds!)

It's just a little odd that we don't rank higher, considering we remain a region that is relatively old compared to the rest of the country. Multiple research studies have determined that older people report more happiness and less stress than younger generations. As opposed to everything going downhill after age 50, it's apparently quite the contrary, in terms of life's worries.

All of this leaves us a bit confused as to how we're supposed to feel. It was the same after we saw the newspaper photo below the happiness story: Are we supposed to feel good that we didn't have a Mercedes-Benz that got smashed by a flying SUV, or bad that we can't afford a Mercedes-Benz in the first place?

Other than that confusion, though, we're doing "pretty good. How about you?"


Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.


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