Why Is America So Much Unhappier Than It Was In 2012?

The annual debut of the World Happiness Report, a project mounted yearly by the UN since 2012 that puts every country in the world onto a ranking based on its gross national happiness, is out — and America continues to slide down the ranks. This year it's at number 14, beaten by Australia, New Zealand, virtually every Nordic country (Norway won this year), Switzerland, and various others. It's not exactly a shining demonstration of the country's journey in the world, particularly because it held a spot at number 3 in just 2012. So what on earth is going on? Why is America so unhappy?

Understanding the happiness rankings is a slightly peculiar project, particularly because, as the authors point out, sometimes happiness can be a cultural thing. According to their rankings, Latin American countries should be less happy than they actually are, while East Asians should be happier; but while many factors can be held in common across various societies to measure happiness, from income to support in national institutions, there are some that are extremely local.

Still, the rankings are a very interesting thing, and reveal a lot about what might really be hampering America as it tries to pull itself together. Hint: no, President Trump isn't likely the root of the problem, though he's likely not helping very much.

How National Happiness Is Measured


Happiness is important, and not just personally. The World Happiness Reports attract a lot of argument and attention when they come out every year precisely because they're not just about everybody wandering around grinning all the time. Happiness and satisfaction in a national population are products of various structural and cultural factors that keep things stable and forward-looking — not a kind of gentle bliss that makes everybody a cheery, break-out-into-song resident in a Disney village.

How you actually manage to measure population happiness on a national scale is quite a tricky thing, but the World Happiness Report scientists have come up with some pretty intriguing metrics to explain what factors contribute to national satisfaction. They do actually ask residents how happy they feel, using something called the Cantril Ladder:

But they then put those responses into context using six separate factors that influence happiness on a grand national scale. They're all equally weighted, and the line-up goes like this: income, healthy life expectancy, the amount of trust that can be placed in business and government, generosity as measured by donations, personal freedom, and social support ("having someone to count on in times of trouble"). You'll notice something about this: it's not just about economics. Social and political factors play heavily into the way in which a national population relates to its own satisfaction, and getting richer isn't a solution for everybody's problems.

So why does this matter? The people behind the rankings believe that the happier a country is, the more likely it is to be able to work towards the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, an array of 17 different aims for the world's countries that include clean water for everybody, affordable energy, 0 percent poverty, world peace, a lack of corruption, and gender equality. A happy populace is a strong one that's empowered to make good changes. Sing songs if you like, but you're also going to be seen as more capable world citizens.

The American Problem: More Money, More Unhappiness


The American problem, dropping from a ranking of 3 to 14 since 2012, is such an issue that the authors of the 2017 report have devoted a full chapter to it. The key to understanding why America only came in at number 14, they say, is that national happiness under their scale has a huge social component. And the U.S., according to them, is in "social crisis." So much for the leaders of the free world.

So why is the U.S. so unhappy? Its income has been rising steadily overall, but the scientists behind the Happiness Report point out that American wealth has two problems: One is that it exacerbates already-pretty dramatic social and income inequality, and another is that it doesn't address the underlying social issues that seem to be making people unhappy. Measured in 2017, four of the six factors for Americans had gone downhill: people felt more socially disconnected from their neighbors, less capable of living free lives, gave less to charities, and saw more corruption in institutions they were meant to trust.

Social disconnects are a big issue, and they work across a huge range of areas. In massively divided societies, we don't feel supported by or connected to our neighbors of different groups, and don't share in their problems or triumphs. We're also more personally isolated; the problem of social isolationism in America, perhaps due to poor work-life balance or a growing emphasis on individualism rather than community, is a continuing argument. Some people blame social media, others the rise of the nuclear family and a loss of connection with wider networks of friends and neighbors; but America appears to be a case study in the problem of eroding social fabric. Instances of violent social and political inequalities and divides have also been on the rise in the public eye since 2012, from police killings of young black men to the horrendously corrosive 2016 election. Even if some people are rich, privileged, and healthy, the massive gap between the haves and have-nots, and clashes between the two, is dragging everybody down.

How Can We Fix It?


It's easy to look at the factors holding America back; it's much harder to prescribe an answer. One easy response is to say that America should switch to the "Nordic model" of high taxes and big, government-funded social welfare projects, which characterizes many of the countries at the top of the happiness rankings; but that model actually seems to be a function of a happy country, not necessarily the cause.

Leonid Bershidsky wrote of the reports in Bloomberg that the thing that distinguishes the countries that have been at the top of the list is a sense of "participation:" people get involved with their communities, volunteer, foster strong senses of connection, and support one another in times of crisis. They trust one another more and have higher feelings of social fulfillment. In those circumstances, he noted, "people are more willing to pay taxes, less prone to corruption, and expansive social safety nets become the norm."

On a basic level, sorting America's complicated social sh*t out, or at least having productive conversations, seems to be the most direct way in which the happiness rankings could be climbed. Interestingly, the "participatory" aspect of happy countries may prove to be particularly useful in 2017: if the Women's March and Resistance prove anything, it's that social activism can be used to bind disparate parts of the population together. There's still a long way to go, but at least Americans still feel empowered to stand up and shout for a place in their democracy.

However, there may be bigger problems looming. Remember that corruption marker for happiness? America's been facing a decline in trust in its institutions for years; and Trump's government is hardly going to improve matters. Between nepotistic White House offices for Ivanka Trump, restrictions on press freedom, lavish spending on Mar-a-Lago trips, and the ongoing treason investigations on collusion with Russian officials, trust in the White House in particular is likely to be at an all-time low. (One suspects that Transparency International's next world corruption rankings will not reflect well on America's current government.) And another key marker, life expectancy, may not fare well either, considering the havoc of the new proposed insurance models and defunding of key social support systems for vulnerable Americans. It's not great news.

Overall, it's likely that America's place on the list will continue to slide down. Hey, we could all move to Norway — or we could focus on fixing our problems at home, by striving to build connections, participate in the community, and shove corruption off a very, very high cliff.