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America, Desperate For Happiness, Is Getting Less And Less Happy

A new survey finds that the U.S. is just the 18th happiest country in the world, because of poor health, poor economic mobility, and a lack of social cohesion.

America, Desperate For Happiness, Is Getting Less And Less Happy

For a country that prides itself on pursuing happiness (it’s in the Declaration of Independence, even), America isn’t particularly happy in international terms. European nations regularly top the U.S in surveys of happiness, showing how well-being isn’t necessarily linked with economic growth.

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The United Nations’s latest World Happiness Report shows this once again. Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland occupy the top five places, as they have in previous years (though in slightly different orders). The U.S. is in 18th place, and our happiness levels may, in fact, be falling.

The ranking, which is overseen by three well-known happiness academics, is based on Gallup survey data from 2015 to 2017. In each of more than 150 countries surveyed, 3,000 respondents were asked to assess their life on an imaginary ladder, on a scale of 1 to 10. The top rung (10) means they are living the best possible life; the bottom means the worst.

Americans give an average rung-number of 6.8, while the top four countries all score more than 7.5. Our score has fallen by 0.315 points since 2008–2010, according to the report, which is produced by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network. We were in 14th place overall last year.

The report emphasizes how happiness isn’t necessarily linked to economic growth–a decoupling first suggested in the 1970s (and called the Easterlin Paradox). Incomes per person have now risen about three times since 1960, while measured happiness has failed to rise at all. In fact, the paradox is becoming more paradoxical than ever. Per capita GDP remains on the up, even if happiness is now actually falling, according to the latest data.

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The report shows how six main factors affect well-being and only one of those is strictly economic (GDP per capita). The other five are life expectancy, social support, freedom to make choices, the generosity of people around you, and perceived corruption levels.

In a chapter last year, the economist Jeffrey Sachs–one of the authors–blamed social factors for the decline in happiness. He noted how fewer people report feeling they have control over the choices in their lives; that fewer people feel they have others to count on in times of difficulty; that fewer people trust politicians and other public figures; and that, judged by data on charitable giving, people are less generous toward others than they used to be.

“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis,” Sachs wrote, adding that the social crisis has also not translated into government policy. “Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington, D.C., centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society,” he said.

In a similar chapter this year, Sachs blames epidemics in obesity, substance abuse (especially opioid addiction), and depression as causes for our happiness decline. “America’s public health . . . has improved much less than in most other high-income countries, and in recent years is experiencing an outright decline. The U.S. life expectancy actually fell by 0.1 years from 2014 to 2015, and then by another 0.1 years from 2015 to 2016,” he writes.

John Helliwell, another of the three academics behind the report, thinks his home nation of Canada has a better approach to happiness than the U.S. (Canada comes in 7th in the ranking). Its governing motto–“peace, order, and good government”–is more concrete than the abstract “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” he says. The latter sounds nice, but good government may lead to better life chances. “If you pursue happiness, you won’t find it. You’re more likely to be happy as a reward for a life well-lived,” he tells Fast Company. “It’s not about the enforcement of rights, but about opportunities to succeed.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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