“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection,” Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet series The American Crisis. It was December 1776, shortly after the onset of the war for independence, and Paine was contemplating the purpose and promise of patriotism in building a new nation free of British overreach. A happy patriot, in his view, was one who drew strength and joy even from the nation—especially under adverse circumstances.
Nearly 250 years later, few would argue that the United States has not recently seen adversity, including extreme political polarization, civil unrest, the coronavirus, and more. These threats have failed to bring out the happy patriot in us: Gallup found a seven-point drop in the percentage of Americans who said they were “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be an American from 2019 to 2020. This deterioration is especially dramatic right now, but it’s been going on for almost two decades. In 2003, 69 percent said they were “extremely proud”; last year, 42 percent did.
No matter where you live, patriotism can be a thorny subject. Political division is ever more toxic; seemingly the only thing both sides can agree on is that their country’s ideals and institutions are a sham. Populism and demographic tribalism are on the rise worldwide. I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet, however. On the contrary, I think a healthy patriotism can make a comeback all along the ideological spectrum. And we will all be happier for it.
A number of scholars have studied the link between patriotism and happiness, and have found that it is strongly positive. For example, a 2011 study in Psychological Science 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 life satisfaction in terms of societal success.
For millennia, the concept of patriotism was tied to a shared ethnicity, religion, or language; love of country without these elements seemed inconceivable. This changed with the American experiment. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in a letter to his friend Ernest de Chabrol after arriving in the U.S. in 1831, “Imagine if you can … a society comprising all the nations of the world: English, French, German … All people having different languages, beliefs, and opinions. In short, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without national character.”
And yet, Americans were peculiarly patriotic. Tocqueville would go on to write in Democracy in America about the new nation’s fractious breed of “irritable patriotism.” Some citizens would assemble “for the sole object of announcing that they disapprove of the government’s course.” Meanwhile, another group would “unite to proclaim that the men in office are the fathers of their country.” But as at odds as they were, no American would permit a foreigner’s criticism of their country. American patriotism, Tocqueville found, was the shared civic spirit of competitive riffraff dedicated to building a nation together.
Over the next century, this kind of patriotism came to seem less strange around 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 has no wish to force on other people.” He contrasted patriotism with nationalism, by which he meant “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”; also, “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
Nationalists may identify as patriots, and some people opposed to both ideologies might argue that they are equivalent. For national and individual well-being, though, distinguishing between them is important. Following Tocqueville and Orwell, we might 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 science finds a major quality-of-life difference between the two. In 2013, a cross-national 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 pushed both up, and ethnic pride pushed both 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 (under Orwell’s definition) is not. If we are moving toward the latter in our society—as many argue we are—then, in terms of happiness, we are moving in the wrong direction.
No matter your political views or where you live, you can cultivate a patriotism of the healthy Tocquevillian sort, for your own benefit and to help inflect the national mood. This requires that you follow two guidelines.
1. Emphasize the positive.
There is nothing wrong with articulating the disagreements you might have with your fellow citizens; indeed, a competition of ideas is important for a free society. But remembering what doesn’t divide you—what all of you are proud of—is also important. In the U.S., for example, 91 percent of people are proud of our country’s scientific achievements; 89 percent are proud of our military; 85 percent are proud of our arts and culture. When you are frustrated or angry about what isn’t right in your country, take a moment to think about the things it does well.
To make this easier, try a trick developed by the marriage expert John Gottman. He argues that all relationships have negative interactions; the problem is when those overwhelm the positive ones. Gottman’s magic ratio of 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 when talking about your country too?
In the U.S., it’s especially easy to give thanks even as we express displeasure about our system’s ills. Unlike in so many places around the world, we can express our complaints loudly with little threat of harm from the government. If you have the freedom to publicly air your grievances, celebrate it—and remember the people who have sacrificed for your right to do so.
2. Make your protest patriotic.
Patriotic love is not blind to problems—remember Tocqueville’s irritable patriots, who simultaneously denounced and lauded the government. This 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 central to the message of Martin Luther King Jr., who used overtly patriotic language to challenge Americans to live up to their own national ideals. “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom,” he wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Similarly, in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King recited an entire verse of the patriotic hymn “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
For King, patriotism was not about ignoring what was clearly wrong with America; rather, it was an expression of faith in what we could be. You can adopt this attitude too by framing activism for change in terms of your nation’s stated ideals.
For its happiness benefits and the other ways it would mend national rifts, patriotism is worth trying to rebuild. Some would dispute that—including, perhaps, the 18th-century writer and moralist Samuel Johnson, who is famously reported to have said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
This quote comes from James Boswell’s 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson, and Boswell helpfully elaborates: “He did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.”
Obviously, there are people in the U.S. and elsewhere who do use patriotism as a cloak for self-interest. But plenty of ordinary people display patriotism at its best: a real and generous love for their fellow citizens and shared ideals. This is the happy patriotism that can bring a nation back together around a commitment to one another, a celebration of values that transcend disagreements, and a belief that progress is possible, together.