Since I work on a college campus, I have a front row seat to that annual spring rite, the arrival of the reunion classes. About a week after Commencement, the surviving members of the 25th and the 50th and sometimes even the 75th classes arrive, for a round of cocktail parties and lectures and golf tournaments and heavy petting from the development office. But what interests me most is how happy all these returnees seem to be back in the dorm rooms of their youth—how happy their memories of college are. If there were a common sentiment, it would be “those were the best years of my life.”
But why? Because of the intellectual stimulation? Perhaps, though I confess I can barely even remember most of the classes I took. Here’s my guess: For an average American, college is the only four years of your life when you live the way most human beings have always lived, in close emotional and physical proximity with a lot of other people. We like it because we’ve more or less evolved to like it.
Consider: Since the end of World War II, Americans have devoted themselves assiduously to one task above all others: building bigger houses farther apart from each other. As we’ve sprawled out across the landscape, the chance that we would run into each other on any given day has steadily decreased. It’s a trend reinforced by all the other effects of our access to endless cheap fossil fuel: We don’t get food from our neighbors, we don’t need our neighbors for safety or security. Truth be told, we’re the first of our species who have no practical need of our neighbors for anything. Which may explain why we barely know them. By some accounts, more than half of Americans have no real relationship with the people who live next door.
It may also explain something else: why Americans haven’t gotten any happier over the last five decades. Statistically we’ve stayed even at best; the number of Americans who rate themselves as very happy has gone down since the 1950s, even though our standard of living has trebled. If economics worked the way we think it does—if more stuff produced more satisfaction—then we’d be pleased as punch. That we’re not demands some explanation (especially since all that growth has come at tremendous cost to, among other things, the environment—if we’re going to wreck the climate, we should at least get some serious pleasure in return).
The data is still murky, but I think it’s increasingly clear what’s happened. The American dream was the independence I’ve already described—rattling around in a big house separated from the next one by as broad a swath of grass as you could afford. But that dream doesn’t actually fit with who we are. The average American eats dinner with friends and family half as often as 50 years ago. The average American has half as many friends as someone 50 years ago. That’s what happens when you live an ever-more-privatized life. And it turns out to be a bad bargain—there aren’t enough flat-screen plasmas and beach-villa vacations and all-you-can-eat buffets to make up for the loss of those friends, the loss of those networks, the loss of that community. We are, it’s useful to remind ourselves, socially evolved primates—it wasn’t that long ago that we spent our days crouched on the forest floor grooming each other. It’s no wonder we’re a little out of sorts in our lonesome new world.
And it’s no wonder we’re looking for alternatives. For a decade now, the farmers market has been the fastest growing part of our food economy—their numbers have doubled and then doubled again. Partly that’s because the food tastes better. But it’s also because the farmers market is a different social experience from the supermarket. When researchers followed shoppers around the Stop and Shop, they found it an arid experience: Visit the stations of the cross around the store, emerge with the same collection of stuff as last week, maybe discuss that eternal question “credit or debit” with the cashier. That was it. But when they watched shoppers at the farmers market, they found that on average they had 10 times more conversations per visit. Not 10 percent more, 10 times more.
The funny part, of course, is that we tell ourselves we’ve invented some chic new thing, when the farmers market is how everyone got their food till 80 years ago, and how 80 percent of the world still does. Of course we like it—we’ve evolved to.
And of course we like college. Sometimes it’s a pain in the butt to have noisy parties down the hall or an obnoxious roommate. But the sheer pleasure of always having someone to talk to, play with, hang out with—that’s straight joy. The irony, of course, is that colleges devote themselves to helping us make enough money that we’ll never live that way again.
Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is a journalist, environmentalist, and author of 13 books, including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, 2010).