Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness (in America)

The latest World Happiness Report rankings have been released, and the Nordics dominate the top 10. What will move the needle?

Professor Jeffrey Sachs Decries 'Surly, Nasty' U.S.

Chances are, if you live in the U.S., you feel worse today than you did 10 years ago. Don’t worry, it’s not you. This is a national problem: America’s rank on the happiness scale is falling.

When it comes to happiness, the U.S. ranked 19th among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development in 2016, down from third among 24 countries on a similar measure in 2007, according to the World Happiness Report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and funded by the Ernesto Illy Foundation.

Money, at least in the U.S., doesn’t buy happiness, the report found. Even as the country pulled off an economic turnaround, with increases in income and unemployment falling to historic lows, Americans are becoming less happy.

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it,” wrote Jeffrey D. Sachs, one of the editors of the report. “But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach.”

The report is based on an annual survey of 1,000 people in more than 150 countries that simply asks them to rank, on a scale of zero to 10, whether they are living their best life.

Researchers then use six measures to try to understand the results: gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy, support from relatives or friends, charitable giving, freedom to make life choices, and perceived levels of government and corporate corruption.

Top-ranked countries by average levels of happiness from 2014 to 2016.

Rankings are created using the average of three years of surveys. Nordic countries, of course, were the happiest. In the list covering 2014 to 2016, Norway moved into the top spot as the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark and Iceland. The least happy nations: Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic. The U.S. ranked 14th on the most recent rankings average.

Improving happiness in the U.S. would be much easier to do through social change, the report found.

An increase in GDP would have much less of an impact on the U.S.’s overall happiness level than improvements in other aspects of life, researchers said. For example, there is more perceived corruption in the U.S. now than in 2006-07. To offset that increase, GDP per person would have to rise from about $53,000 to $62,000. Or, to offset what Americans see as a loss of social support since 2006, GDP would have to rise to $82,000.

Overall, if the nation were to focus purely on economic gains, per-capita GDP would have to increase to about $133,000 to get back to those 2006 happiness levels, the authors estimate.

Sachs suggested five means by which to improve social trust: campaign finance reform, policies aimed at reducing income inequality (such as public financing of health), improved social relations between native born and immigrant Americans, working to move past the fear of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and improved access to high-quality education.

“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis,” Sachs wrote. “Not an economic crisis.”

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