A global report on happiness devoted an entire chapter to misery in America

Waving or drowning?
Waving or drowning?
Image: Reuters/Tim Shaffer
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Every year a group of UN economists and thinkers gets together to assess world happiness. The Nordic countries jostle with each other for the top spots, coming out so close that tiny changes lead to swaps in position (this year Norway took over from Denmark as number one.)

The US slipped one spot to 14th place for overall happiness this year, and the report dedicated an entire chapter to why Americans are so unhappy.

Looking in more detail reveals that American happiness saw declines in some areas and gains in others. And Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University and one of the report’s lead authors, argues in the chapter that much of US policy directed at solving economic problems misses the point.

The report, which started in 2012, measures individuals’ happiness using the so-called the Cantril ladder, in which survey respondents place themselves on a 10-rung ladder to assess their own happiness. The top rung represents the best possible life they could be having, and the bottom rung represents the worst. Since this measure was first taken, in 2007, American happiness has declined 7%.

The report breaks that fall down into six indicators. Two have got better: income per capita and healthy life expectancy.

But the other four have all gotten worse. Fewer people said they felt free enough to choose what they do with their lives. Fewer said they had someone to count on in times of trouble. People were less generous, as measured by donations to charity. And they perceived politicians as more corrupt.

“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,” Sachs wrote in the report. “But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach.” Instead, the country should address what he calls the “social crisis”—though some of this has undeniably economic roots.

Sachs identifies five components to what he calls the “destruction of social capital”: The ability of wealthy people to influence politics through donations is too unfettered. Immigration without adequate assimilation has led to a decline in trust. Post-9/11 fear has continued to dog American consciousness and its foreign policy. And fewer people are able to access higher education because of its cost. Finally, a massive increase in the gap between rich and poor partly explains how wealth has continued to rise while happiness declined.

America’s leaders should address these issues directly, he suggests, with campaign finance reform, taxes on wealth, and more public funding for health and education. And, Sachs says, the US should look to Canada as an example, and roll back policies—such as Trump’s travel ban—that stoke fear instead of seeking to alleviate it.