The humble hero of “A Strangeness in My Mind,” Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk’s epic account of the explosive growth of Istanbul over the past half-century, is a street vendor who wanders the city’s maze of ever-expanding squatter neighborhoods selling a traditional Turkish drink called Boza.

Passing through back alleys and past abandoned cemeteries, Mevlut is often threatened by packs of dogs who – like the flood of villagers streaming into the city – simply occupy whatever spots on the urbanizing hillsides they can claim.

Alone in each new, strange and dark place, he faces his fear head-on and lets loose a long, mournful yet confident cry of “Boozaaa!” And invariably a new customer emerges from the upper window of some tenement – “Boza seller, over here!” – and he establishes himself as a known and accepted quantity to both the human and canine residents of the quarter.

I was reminded of this story by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent Brookings Institution commentary on the perplexing disconnect between people’s feelings about their personal economic situation and prospects and their feelings about the overall national situation and prospects.

Using 100 as a baseline measure of neutral economic “feeling” (meaning half the people think things are getting better, and half think they are getting worse), it is possible to follow changes in economic feelings over time.

At the deepest trough of the Great Recession (2010), the score for the question “Are you personally better off than you were last year?” in University of Michigan and Gallup polls stood at 60: i.e., 40 points below neutral. By the end of 2015, that score stood at 118, clearly indicating a jump in personal optimism.

Moving to the question, “Do you expect to be better off in a year?,” the score went from 102 to 122 over the same period. The score to a somewhat less personal query – “What are your expectations for business conditions in five years?” – went from 75 to 100 over the same period.

In short, with regard to personal and overall business conditions, people are feeling substantially better now than they did five or six years ago. And while there have been monthly ups and downs, the overall trend has clearly and steadily been one of rising optimism.

Interestingly, this pattern holds true across age groups and income levels. Young people (age 18 to 34) feel more optimistic about the next five years than do older people (age 55 and older), but all groups have grown more optimistic over the past five years. The top third of the income distribution feels more optimistic about the next five years than the bottom third, but all income groups have grown more optimistic over the past five years.

But when we move to the less personal, more public question, “Are you satisfied with the way things are going?” a far different pattern emerges. At the depth of the financial crisis in 2008, the score for that question stood at 30, fully 70 points below neutral. By the end of 2010, it had risen to nearly 60. But since then, it has bounced around between 40 and 60, ending 2015 with a drop to about 55.

In short, people don’t feel as satisfied – whatever that may mean – with their country’s overall direction as they feel confident about their own economic prospects.

Why? Bernanke’s guess is polarization. “To an increasing extent,” he says, “Americans are self-selecting into non-overlapping communities (real and virtual) of differing demographics and ideologies served by a fragmented and partisan media.”

My guess is that the wild dogs of fear in our imaginations become stronger the more we isolate ourselves from the on-the-ground realities of our entire community. Our Turkish hero Mevlut was poor, and suffered enormous difficulties and great setbacks throughout his life in Istanbul. But as long as he embraced the entire city – rich and poor, bright and dark, Islamic and secular – in his heart and expressed it in his work, “the people of Istanbul felt the very same emotion in their hearts, and that was why they asked him upstairs and bought his boza.”

It was also why the stray dogs never sensed fear in him and left him alone, acknowledging him as a legitimate member of the community.

It was only after Mevlut took a job as an electric meter inspector – putting himself in the position to accept bribes by threatening to turn off the power over bills that may (or may not) have been paid – that the dogs sensed his fear and attacked him, ending his days as a boza vendor.

However rich we each may be, however secure in our own self-selected community, we are increasingly at risk as citizens of a constitutional democracy encompassing 330 million souls if we continue to separate our individual well-being so completely from that of our fellow citizens.

Charles Lawton is the chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

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