What Is America So Unhappy About?

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The United States is the richest and mightiest nation on earth. Where do we rank in global happiness? Fourteenth. Why? Thanks to our “rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust.”

That, at least, is the conclusion of the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who authored America’s section in this year’s World Happiness Report—the UN-backed annual report that uses actual legitimate social science to rank the world’s nations by how happy their citizens are. It does not take a genius to spot the trend: The top five happiest nations on earth are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland, all relatively wealthy, stable nations with strong social safety nets, functioning governments, and little corruption. And then there’s us.


Sachs notes that American income has tripled over the past half century, but our measure happiness has not increased. There’s more to this than money. At the same time, we don’t want to get too touchy-feely, lest we descend into immeasurable guesses about the state of our immortal souls. Since 2007, America’s happiness has declined by a full half-point on a ten-point scale; that decline covers both economic decline and economic recovery. The source of our unhappiness, according to social surveys, is that our society is becoming more unequal, and we are losing trust—in each other, in our government, and in our social institutions. Sachs also notes that experiments show that we seem to be less likely to go out of our way to help others: “A recent study showed that the extent of helping behavior by U.S. residents declined sharply between 2001 and 2011, but this was not true for Canadian residents.”

Why are we such bastards? Sachs points to the profound racial and ethnic segregation of our society, exacerbated by rising economic inequality, terrorism fears, and failures in our public education system. Rather than pursue a cutthroat agenda of economic growth, he says (“the prescriptions for faster growth—mainly deregulation and tax cuts—are likely to exacerbate, not reduce social tensions”), we should focus on reducing inequality, improving public education and the social safety net, implementing campaign finance reform so that Americans can begin to trust that the government is working for them rather than just for the rich, and finding some way of moving past our collective post-9/11 psychological trauma.


Because this report is about a subject as vague as “happiness” and people are not good at parsing the credibility of social science, it is almost certain that those in power will use it to advance a prescriptive agenda that is diametrically opposite from the one described above. Oh well.

[The full report]