Why aren’t we happy?
We are a nation whose founding document declares that we have a right to be happy. Well, technically, under the Declaration of Independence we have unalienable right to “the pursuit happiness,” which isn’t quite the same thing. We’re guaranteed the pursuit, not necessary the acquisition. In any case, put your legal quibbles aside, our founders were concerned about happiness — theirs and ours.
What makes us so sure we’re not happy, you ask? Because the World Happiness Report says so. It’s produced every few years by a United Nation-sponsored Sustainable Development Solutions Network. There have been five such reports over the past decade and the latest one — which came out earlier this past year — confirms some unhappy trends.
The United States — our unalienable rights not withstanding — is not a particularly happy place. Even worse, we’re becoming more unhappy as the years go on — so our pursuit of said happiness doesn’t seem to be going very well.
The happiest country in the world, the report found, is Finland. It’s been the No. 1 country for happiness in the past three reports (before that it was Denmark, which now ranks No. 2). Denmark hasn’t become unhappier, but Finland has become a lot happier. If you’re looking for trends here, they’re easy to find: Four of the five happiest countries in the world — and five of the top seven — are Scandinavian. Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, The Netherlands and Sweden. New Zealand, Austria and Luxembourg round out the top 10.
The United States? We barely make the top 20. We’re No. 18, down from No. 11 in the first report in 2012. Blame Barack Obama, blame Donald Trump, blame both, blame neither, but something is causing us to be less happy.
So what kind of magic math produces this? Short version: It’s based on a lot of interviews that asks about a lot of life factors, from income (money actually can buy a certain amount of happiness, it seems) to social support to the political systems people live in (there’s a definite correlation between democracy and happiness, our current presidential campaign notwithstanding). Here are some highlights of the report, which you can view at: worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/
1) Why are Nordic countries so happy? Strong social safety nets help, the report says, and the Nordic countries are famous for those. But what really seems to matter is that the people in those countries trust their government — and their fellow citizens. By contrast, Americans have been losing faith in our major institutions for decades — and becoming politically polarized in a way that the Nordic countries are not. Those countries sometimes elect left-wing governments (currently in power in Sweden, Finland, Iceland), they sometimes elect right-wing governments (Norway), but they manage to do so without the kind of rancor that we now have. We like to think about “American exceptionalism” but this report devotes an entire chapter to “Nordic exceptionalism.” The report says there’s less income inequality there, so citizens tend not to be so resentful of others. Of note: Three of those four countries now have women as prime ministers. Coincidence? That raises the question: Do female leaders lead to happier countries? Or are happier countries more inclined to elect women? We notice all the unhappy countries are led by men. The unhappiest is Afghanistan.
2) What’s the country we’re most like, happiness-wise? We rank slightly below Germany and slight above the Czech Republic. We always like to compare and contrast the United States with Canada, because we’re neighbors and Canada provides a good alternative universe to see how different policies play out in a very similar society. Canada ranks as the 11th happiest country, but it’s become less happy, too. It used to rank sixth. Happiness-wise, North America scores as a neighborhood in decline. Perhaps what we need is a candidate running on the slogan of Make America Happy Again.
3) Who’s happier, people in cities or people in the country? In poor countries, people in cities are happier because that’s where more economic opportunity is. In more developed countries, though, people in rural areas are slightly happier than those in small cities or even big cities. Finally, an advantage for rural America.
4) Speaking of cities, what’s the happiest city in the world? Helsinki, Finland. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, given the country rankings. Generally speaking, the happiest cities are in the happiest countries. Denmark places two in the top 5; Norway two in the top 10, New Zealand three in the top 17. The happiest city in North America isn’t American — it’s Toronto, which ranks 13th happiest worldwide. The happiest U.S. city (only the biggest were included) is Washington, which ranks 18th worldwide. Really? This is so incomprehensible to us as to render the whole report unbelievable — unless people in Washington really like things the way they are, which seems entirely possible. The unhappiest city in the world? Kabul, Afghanistan.