A gift of good-ish news


At this time of year, in this space, you’ve often been taxed with excerpts from the texts of many troubling Christmas letters from friends and family, and also, inexplicably, from people we can’t recall ever meeting. I had one a week ago, seven photo-copied pages long, mixing news of the kids and grandkids with news of the world and jeremiads against the internal combustion engine, the cigar, the Congress, the president, the Republicans, and even the roundabout. My correspondent doesn’t live here, hasn’t ever lived here, but thanks to the web, any remote, insignificant issue, even 6,000 miles away, is the occasion for a sermon.

Perhaps, as I supposed, the letters that appeared here resembled letters you’ve received in Christmases past. I certainly apologize if any of the examples printed in this space were written by you or your friends.

But this year, the thirteenth in which I’ve been committing this weekly column, I intend no bragging, no instruction, no warnings, no preaching. Just a happy reminder of a few facts you may be pleased to know. My Christmas gift, sort of.

What could be better than some good news, in the form of a few heartening results from a study of you, and me, and others like us? The real gift may be the pleasure you will realize when I tell you that you were right not to believe everything you’ve read in the newspapers, or find online, or on cable, or broadcast TV, or in popular magazines. The swinish, hopeless, fevered picture of Americans and their culture that all these information outlets wallow in and invite you to accept as revealing and true is neither. Isn’t that a bit of affirming information worth finding under the tree?

The source of these smile-worthy satisfactions is Ben Schott, a New York Times writer and the author of the Schott’s Vocab blog. Schott hunts down factual information and arrays his findings in interesting and useful ways. I became acquainted with Schott’s Almanac a couple of years ago. It was a gift. Better than that old faithful Information Please Almanac, Schott’s version of everything you ever wanted to know and more has been a column-writing staple.

You can find comforting stuff that will help in an argument, for instance when someone tells you to forget about how your parents raised you, no one spanks kids anymore, it’s inhumane. You need to dialogue [sic] with the little monsters, not spank them. Oh, yeah, well Schott reports that 71.3 percent of Americans either strongly agree or agree with the assertion that it is “sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.” That’s what I’m saying.

Or someone says, of course your kid needs to go to college. Every kid has to have a college degree nowadays. And you say sure, but Bozo may not be cut out for college. Schott says, of Americans 25 years of age or older, whether they went to college or not, only 18.1 percent have bachelor degrees, and only 9.6 percent have advanced degrees. In each case, the percentage is a little higher for men, a little lower for women.

Now, for those of us who have cleaved to a husband or a wife for lo these many, many years, how’s chances that we’re happy? Not good, you say, especially given the divorce rate. Not so, Schott says; in fact 97 percent of married Americans describe themselves as very happy or pretty happy. You’ll say that’s a survey of those of us who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I say, may I have another glass, please?

Schott has offered and I have mentioned before some stuff that I found happily affirming, especially as another year in such a long, increasingly draining, string of years comes to an end. Schott has reported data from the national Social Life, Health and Aging Project, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.

Here is some of the good stuff. Perhaps you thought that Americans are increasingly flying solo, taking comfort not from other humans, but from images of other humans on the computer screen. Well, the news is a lot better. Among women 57 to 64, 74.1 percent have partners. They’re not loners. Among men, it’s 89.1 percent. Sixty-seven percent of women are married, as are 82.3 percent of men.

It’s the unhappy case that men still die before women, and divorce plays a part in the apparent discrepancy in these numbers too, so that fewer women have married male partners as they age, which seems sad but may be regarded as a blessing by the women involved. Who knows?

With men, if they survive their ’50s, chances are that the women to whom they are married have also. Ditto, if the man survives into his seventies and eighties. At 85, he’s still likely to be married and living with his female partner.

Nobody’s healthy forever, but among 64-year-olds, only 9.5 percent will have had a heart attack, only 5.6 percent will have had a stroke, and only 8.5 percent will have had cancer. I’m not going to mention the enlarged prostate stats.

Here’s some more news worth knowing and savoring. More than 51 percent of men and women between 57 and 64 like spending time with their partners. Eighty-six percent of women and 89.4 percent of men report they can rely on their partners. And only 5.2 percent of women 57 to 64, and 3.1 percent of men, report that their most recent relationship is unhappy.

So, if you occasionally find yourself in despair at the conventional way you live your life, at your hopeless hiplessness, think of the statistical incidence of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer, and remember that in your ordinariness, you’re lowering your risk profile to beat the band.