Someone holding a yellow sign that's painted with an angry face

Why are people in America so angry?

I went out to a local Portland get together called Food with Friends several weeks ago. Typically we get lots of people from the tech community, and every time I go I meet someone new and interesting. This time, there was a conference in town and I started speaking with a guy named Brent from Vancouver, BC (whoooo Vancouver!).

We started talking and he mentioned some of the interactions he’d had on his visit. At one point he said, “People in the US seem so angry. Why?”

Now, you may already know that I LOVE research. And one of the things I consistently repeat is that we need to ask better questions.

Good questions lead to impactful insights.

And this. This was a beautiful, painful, and wonderful question. Why are Americans so angry?

Well, I started telling him. And lucky for him the place shut down so he didn’t have to hear my whole list of reasons. But I spent a few weeks thinking about it, and decided this is a great question, and one I’d like to try and answer in a more condensed format.

So, why are we so angry? Buckle up because this is going to be rough. And just as a general disclaimer, I’m not an expert in sociology or anthropology, so this is only my opinion based on my own experiences and what I've seen.

We are dying

We have mass shootings and little political will to change them

The United States of America has had 283 mass shootings as of September 1, 2019. For context, I’m writing this on September 24. We are currently on day number 265 of the year. And there have been 283 mass shootings. So more than one mass shooting per day.

If you don’t live in the US, I ask you to imagine what that does to people. For many of us here, I can tell you what it does.

It causes us all to think twice about going to community events with lots of people. There might be an active shooter.Teachers and children — children! — have to do active shooter drills where they hide, find exits, and teachers are the final line of defense for their classes.

Going to the movies, the mall, church, or department stores can be dangerous as well, and we’ve had several instances where shooters come in and murder groups of people.

The NRA has spent millions of dollars to keep guns and ammunition on shelves throughout the US. This has spilled over into legislation where people are allowed to have concealed weapons and open carry in many states, ridiculously lax or non-existent background checks, and extremely lax gun registration. We have been consistently and constantly terrorized by angry white men with guns who shoot and kill us when they’re mad, sad, or scared.

But it’s not all bad. We have Thoughts and Prayers in abundance. That will definitely solve the problem.

Image from https://www.theonion.com/no-way-to-prevent-this-says-only-nation-where-this-r-1835173950

We have an inaccessible healthcare system

Sure, if you’re lucky enough to be employed you might have an employer that also offers benefits. When you go to the doctor, you may only have to pay some money to be seen.If you’re self-employed, maybe you can pay for healthcare through the Affordable Care Act. And you’ll pay more when you end up seeing the doctor.

If you’re unemployed, well, good luck with that. And god forbid you are sick, become sick, or live with a disability that requires any type of ongoing treatment. The Affordable Care Act was a half measure introduced a few years ago that was the first step toward a single payer healthcare system. I personally think it was a step in the right direction to make socialized healthcare more palatable to people, but it has since been gutted by our Republican politicians, who seem pretty steadfast on killing us. Not to say Democrats are all roses and champagne, but they seem slightly less intent on murdering their constituents. Or maybe they’re just trying to kill us more slowly? I can’t really tell at this point.

Anyway, the lack of healthcare results in people paying an astronomical amount for medications like insulin and other lifesaving medications. Which leads me to my next point.

We are massively in debt

Medical debt is a huge problem in the US. According to a 2018 study by Health Affairs, one in six US citizens have past due medical bills on their credit report. Additionally, two-thirds of people cite medical debt as a key contributor to filing for bankruptcy. Despite this, the government spends the most on healthcare of any country in the world. All that spending would imply that we have great healthcare, but we are 27th in the world for level of healthcare (and education to boot). Basically, both citizens and the government pay a buttload for really crappy healthcare.

The cost of medical care means that a lot of people can’t or won’t seek preventative care when something is wrong. Instead, they have little choice but to wait until the problem becomes much more serious, and therefore more costly.On to education. As of the last quarter of 2018, 44 million s owe $1.5 trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”) in student loans. It’s the second highest consumer debt category, coming after mortgages (reported at $9.4 trillion in the last quarter of 2018).

So let’s consider how this might play out in someone’s mind. I’m a recent college graduate, who had to take out a loan to complete school. As I’m looking for a job, I’m unable to afford healthcare, but hopefully, my parents have it so I’m covered on their plan until I’m 26. These thoughts, the debt, trying to find a job that offers healthcare and a living wage are all at the back of my mind.

If I’m someone who’s been in the workforce for a while, I’m nervous about losing my job, particularly if I have a family. What will I do if I can’t afford the COBRA health insurance cost each month or the government sponsored healthcare through the ACA? How can I make sure my kids are covered if they get sick?The United States of America as a country runs on credit. Citizens are expected to have a good credit score to get things like cars and houses, assuming they can afford the downpayment. A good credit score means that we’ve shown that we are okay at buying things we can’t afford and then paying back a bank on time for the cost of a product plus their interest in giving us the money in the first place.

This type of debt consumes people, both mentally and literally. When the majority of your time is thinking about how you’ll make ends meet, how can you help but be upset?

We have systemic racism and inequality

I do not have the requisite knowledge to speak deeply on this subject, but I will say, this has always been a deeply racist country. Our entire country was built, quite literally, on the back of slave labor.

And to further hurt people, as a country we’ve created a system that is explicitly designed to break apart black and brown families. I want to let those who are much smarter and knowledgeable on this subject speak on this, so here are some resources that can expand on this premise.

But this racism and resulting inequality lead to fear and insecurity. And constantly having to put up with this makes people tired. And when you’re constantly exhausted you get angry.

On top of racism, we have income inequality. There is a huge average income gap between the top 10% and the remaining 90%. The top 10% of earners have an average household income of about $312,000. The average income for 90% of America is about $35,000.That level of inequality impacts everything from housing to the ability to pay for healthcare. It’s not possible for many people to pay for basic and preventative healthcare, which means that most of the time people are going to the emergency room instead.

We are killing the world around us

We’re all well aware of the climate crisis we’re currently experiencing. I believe that living on a planet and in a community that is clearly in distress also puts us in a constant state of low-level distress. We are unsure about the future of our communities, the future of the land and areas we love, and the future of the economy. I think that this undercurrent of being unsettled puts us in a low-level state of panic.

In fact, this type of trauma through climate change is starting to be studied and gaining traction in the therapist community. Therapists are now starting to see that as they address mental health in the future, a core tenet will be addressing the trauma around climate change and the stress, displacement, and fear it brings.

We are losing our community

The US has this fantasy of being a place that allows anyone, no matter who they are, to be able to raise their station in life.

But for most, this is a straight-up lie.

Massive inequality and institutional racism lead us to pointing fingers at each other instead of holding our politicians, and the companies that control them, accountable.In our local communities in America, we see new moms cut off from their work communities and personal communities, expected to carry the burden of childcare with very little emotional support and limited financial support.

We are angry, and we are tired

I’ve lived here my whole life but spent a few years traveling around Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that the United States of America isn’t just angry, it’s mean. We shroud ourselves in false compassion but only take half measures on a federal level, refusing to actually make sweeping changes that would benefit society.

Overall, we have a very sad and terrified country. And I think we’ve been that way for a very long time — probably since its inception. A country built on theft, murder, and slave labor has pretty rotten roots to begin with. Because those roots are steeped in fear. And fear leads us to anger. And anger leads to hate (yes, yes, I just pulled a Yoda quote, but it’s still true).

We are angry because we are afraid. And we’re afraid because we know that there is no support system. There is no network to help us when we’re sick or hurt. Companies are running our government and protecting themselves as they use up precious resources. Our minimum wage does not provide people with a stable living wage.

But we need to have courage

Even with all of this happening, and so much that we need to overcome as a society, we need to have courage. We need to believe that there can be something better. So what can you do to help make it better, and help us be better as a country?

1. Vote in local elections. Yes, all of them. Local elections help decide how your town or city runs, and big changes start with individual communities standing up and demanding them.

2. Run for local office. We need more than just career politicians to start serving the public.

3. Get people registered to vote. Make sure that your friends, family, and neighbors all get the chance to vote. Check here to see if you’re registered.

4. Volunteer or donate to something close to your heart. I volunteer some of my time to planting trees because they’re one of the best sources for carbon sequestration. What types of volunteer projects excite you and give you hope?

5. Spend time working with and building a community. Yes things are scary with climate change and the way politics have been moving for the past few years. Yes, it sometimes feels like it's never going to get better. But surrounding yourself with a community that values support and acceptance can help you and all of us work through the changes we need.

And the final thing that should encompass all of this is to take care of yourself. Be compassionate toward yourself and others. It’s easy to get angry and be afraid. It’s easy to be reactionary and lash out. It’s much harder to take a step back and make a level-headed decision. But we need to do that with ourselves and with others.

Right now, more than ever, we need to treat others the way we want to be treated.