Levels of happiness in the United States are falling, according to results from the World Happiness Report 2017, and it appears to be down to a “social crisis.”
The report – released to coincide with the International Day of Happiness – has ranked the U.S. as number 14 out of 155 countries for happiness levels, dropping one place from last year.
According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and co-author of the report, a decline in social support, a loss in the sense of personal freedom, and an increase in distrust of the government, are all key players in America’s dwindling happiness.
“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis,” says Sachs.
The World Happiness Report is an annual report provided by the United Nations (UN) that ranks the levels of happiness across 155 countries.
The results are based on data from surveys that use six criteria to assess the happiness levels in each country: healthy life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support, perceptions of freedom to make life choices, generosity of donations, and perceptions of corruption.
Each country is allocated an average score between zero and 10, with 10 representing the highest levels of happiness.
In this year’s report, based on survey data gathered between 2014 and 2016, Norway took the top spot for the world’s happiest country, with a score of 7.53.
Report co-author Prof. John Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia in Canada, says that given the recent fall in oil prices, it is “remarkable” that Norway – a major oil supplier to the European economy – ranked first for happiness levels.
He speculates that this is down to factors independent of Norway’s economic outlook.
“By choosing to produce oil deliberately and investing the proceeds for the benefit of future generations, Norway has protected itself from the volatile ups and downs of many other oil-rich economies,” notes Prof. Helliwell.
“This emphasis on the future over the present is made easier by high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity, and good governance. All of these are found in Norway, as well as in the other top countries,” he adds.
Denmark came a close second for happiness, followed by Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland.
The U.S., however, missed out on a spot in the top 10. An average score of 6.99 for happiness put the country in 14th place, ranking one place lower than in last year’s report. Why are Americans becoming less happy?
In a section of the report titled “Restoring America’s Happiness,” Sachs looks back at the state of happiness in the U.S. over the past 10 years.
He notes that while per capita GDP in the country is rising, happiness levels have mostly declined since 2007, suggesting that other factors are at play.
Looking at the individual happiness criteria for the U.S., Sachs identified a decline in four areas: social support, personal freedom, generosity, and perceived corruption – areas in which Nordic countries are thriving.
“In sum, the United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness ‘in all the wrong places.’ The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse. Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth.
And the prescriptions for faster growth – mainly deregulation and tax cuts – are likely to exacerbate, not reduce social tensions.”
Jeffrey D. Sachs
Sachs points to a number of factors that may be to blame for such declines in the U.S. One he cites is the aftermath of 9/11.
“America’s reaction to these unprecedented terrorist attacks was to stoke fear rather than appeal to social solidarity,” Sachs writes. “The U.S. government launched an open-ended global war on terror, appealing to the darkest side of human nature by invoking a stark ‘us versus them’ dualism, and terrifying American citizens through the government’s projections of fear.”
Additionally, Sachs believes the “severe deterioration” of the educational system in the U.S. has played a role in the country’s declining happiness, noting that the percentage of students in America achieving at least a university degree has become motionless.
“This matters because the failure of America to educate its young people is a major force behind the rise in income inequality (condemning those with less than a bachelors degree to stagnant or falling incomes) and, it appears, to the fall of social capital as well,” writes Sachs. “The U.S. political divide is increasingly a divide between those with a college degree and those without.”
Sachs suggests that in order for America’s happiness to be restored, the country must place more focus on improving the social capital, rather than the economy.
He adds that this should involve addressing the fear created by the aftermath of 9/11, noting that President Trump’s travel ban to stop individuals from Muslim countries entering the U.S. is a “continuing manifestation” of such fear.
An improvement in educational quality and attainment should also be a key focus in the U.S., says Sachs.
“America has lost the edge in educating its citizens for the 21st century; that fact alone ensures a social crisis that will continue to threaten well-being until the commitment to quality education for all is once again a central tenet of American society.”