So What Can We Trust?
Photo: © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation
You know the sinking feeling that comes from putting yourself in someone else's hands, only to have your faith betrayed? Of course you do! That's the boat we're all in these days! But trust isn't dead, and we're here to prove it. First, though, a little perspective on why it's never mattered more.Pardon us for stating the obvious, but the whole trust thing hasn't exactly been going swimmingly. From investment adviser Bernard Madoff (oh, the misplaced belief) to Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (oy, the comic relief), it's as though everyone who wasn't actively plotting to kill us has been lying, cheating, stealing, or falling asleep at the switch. In recent years, we've witnessed stupidity in high places, cupidity in all places, and fiscal hanky-panky that threatened to sink us (just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling stock market reveals slimy accounting practices).
What else? Oh, yes. We've learned, to our considerable cost, that intelligence can't be trusted. Also that if we're poor but living in a nice place, sharp-eyed developers in cahoots with the town fathers can use eminent domain to snatch our houses. We've never trusted politicians or lawyers, but in today's culture of infotainment, we're losing faith even in journalists—the very people who should be safeguarding our interests and telling us the truth. And with the incidence of infidelity creeping up, it's less and less likely that we can trust even our nearest and dearest.
You'd think by now we'd be a nation of hard-core skeptics, but here's the funny thing: We still want to trust. We don't like the nasty feeling of not knowing who's got our back. We know in our hearts—and any number of studies have shown—that trusting people are generally happier than suspicious, mistrustful types. This turns out to be true for entire nations, as well. Not long ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge set out to see which countries in the European Union scored highest on measures of well-being. It was assumed that the most contented people would be basking along the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. But in fact, Italy came in dead last in the happiness sweepstakes, right behind Portugal and Greece. The EU's happiest countries were Denmark and Finland—cold, gray places, true, but cold, gray places where people trust their governments, their legal systems, and each other. And that made all the difference.
Trust starts with a perception of fairness. That's true on the personal level (the spouse who cheats is usually the one who feels he or she has gotten the short end of the marital bargain) as well as the national. At this writing, it's not certain what the outcome of the Minnesota Senate race will be; no matter who wins, each side will be positive that the other either stole or tried to steal the election. But there was another election last November, an unmistakable vote for change. And now, in spite of everything—the betrayals, the rude awakenings, all the rugs pulled out from under us again and again—many of us are willingly, eagerly, putting our trust in something new. It's about time.
Who can you trust? Take the QUIZ