The Social Crisis Causing America's World Happiness Ranking to Plummet

World Happiness Report
The 2017 World Happiness Report found Norway to be the happiest country in the world. Norsk Telegrambyra/Reuters

To commemorate the International Day of Happiness, the 2017 World Happiness Report was unveiled Monday morning at the United Nations. Norway ranked as the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland. The Netherlands came in 6th and Sweden 10th, signaling a trend among the world’s leaders in wellbeing.

“It's a group of neighbors in northern Europe that all share a common ethos, which is that society should work for everybody,” explained Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who authored the report along with John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and Richard Layard of the London School of Economics. “These are all countries that are providing universal benefits for healthcare, for education, for child support, for maternity leave. There are many, many similarities in these countries.”

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Particularly averse to such “universal benefits” is the United States, which ranked 14th, one spot lower than it did a year ago. This doesn't seem like much of a drop, but happiness in America has been plummeting in recent years. As Sachs pointed out, the United States in 2007 ranked 3rd among the 23 countries that made up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2016, it ranked 19th out of the 34 OECD countries that were sampled.

(World Happiness Report rankings are determined by how surveyed citizens respond to the Cantril ladder question: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” Each year's ranking is based on the average of the previous three years, which means the United States's rank of 14 is based on data from 2014-2016.)

"I think we all sense a high anxiety in American society," Sachs continued. "Inequality has soared and trust has declined. Many of the underlying determinants [of wellbeing] have deteriorated. That's why studies like this are very important. They help to draw a spotlight on what's working, what isn't working, where things are getting better and where things are getting worse."

The traditional assumption is that if a nation's GDP is healthy, its citizens will be happy. In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin discovered that this wasn't necessarily true, at least not in the case of the United States. In a paper titled "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence," Easterlin examined data on wellbeing in the United States, and found that though America was getting richer, the happiness of its citizens had stagnated. This became known as the Easterlin Paradox, and it has persisted in the 40-plus years since the study was released.

Though Easterlin's study was released in 1974, the international community has only recently started to take wellbeing seriously. The first World Happiness Report was compiled in 2012, and several nations now consider happiness and wellness statistics in conjunction with GDP. Some have formed councils tasked with ascertaining quality of life data and devising ways to implement policy around it. The United States is not one of these nations.

The United Arab Emirates has been especially active in leading the discourse surrounding how governments can cultivate wellbeing. On Monday, they hosted a discussion at the United Nations to complement the release of the World Happiness Report. In February, the World Government Summit, which has been held in Dubai since 2013, included a day-long Global Dialogue on Happiness in which economists, researchers and world leaders exchanged ideas on the subject. Sachs, Helliwell and Layard were among the participants.

"Why, ultimately are we doing all of this?" Sachs said during a WGS event promoting the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which he helped create. "The idea is not to rack up the score of GDP per capita. That is not a sensible aim for humanity. The idea is to create well being. Human flourishing. Meaning. Purpose. Safety. Not some arbitrary GDP score."

The SDGs, which were put forth in 2015 as a way to foster peace and prosperity by the year 2030, are an example of the ways in which the definition of a sustainable, well-functioning society has broadened. SDGs call for the elimination of poverty, the reduction of inequality, clean water and sanitation, quality education, climate action and other determinants of a well-rounded society. These are the building blocks of a truly prosperous nation. "Economics matters, but it's only one modest part of wellbeing," Sachs noted on Monday.

The 2017 World Happiness Report lists six factors that contribute to the subjective wellbeing of a nation's citizens: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, social freedom, generosity and the absence of corruption. The final four of these are all social factors, and as Sachs points out, their health has dwindled in the United States. The focus, however, continues to fall on GDP. "Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington D.C. centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate," writes Sachs, "as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society."

In other words, American happiness is dwindling because America is in the midst of a social crisis. Sachs points to five factors contributing the “interconnected destruction of social capital” in America.

1. Money in politics

The United States has lost control of the degree to which money is able to influence political elections and public policy. As Sachs points out, “a typical federal election cycle now involves at least $7 billion in campaign financing, and billions of dollars more in corporate lobbying outlays that are indirect forms of campaign financing.” This results in a feeling among Americans that the government is serving the interests of those with money rather than the interests of the majority.

Sachs references the work of the political scientist Martin Gilens, which has revealed the extent of the issue. “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise,” he and Benjamin Page of Northwestern wrote in a 2014 study. “But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

2. Rising income inequality

Sachs notes how tax cuts for the rich, financial deregulation and other methods elites began to take advantage of in the 1980s have “worked better and longer than could have been imagined." Thirty years later, the income gap in the United States is as drastic as its ever been, and the wellbeing of the very richest Americans has been favored over that of the majority. This trend is only perpetuated, of course, by money's influence over political decision making.

3. Decline in social trust

Sachs connects this to a surge in immigration that has taken place over the past 50 years, particularly as it pertains to the Hispanic population. Studies have shown that areas in the United States with higher ethnic diversity have exhibited less social trust. This has not, however, been the case in other countries, which has led some to believe that America’s economic inequality could be at play here, as well. Regardless, Americans’ trust in their fellow Americans is sliding rapidly.

4. Post-9/11 fear

Rather than “appealing to social solidarity” following 9/11, the United States government decided “appeal to the darkest side of human nature by invoking a stark ‘us versus them’ dualism.” This was exacerbated by excessive pat-downs at airports, terrorism alerts and the government routinely lying about its activity overseas and about the ways in which it monitored Americans. If there is any doubt as to how deeply this sense of dread has settled into the worldview of Americans, look no further than the success of Donald Trump's campaign, which was predicated on terror, xenophobia and  isolationism.

5. Deterioration of the educational system

Education is more important than ever because of how rapidly technology is progressing. “New technologies demand better technical skills,” writes Sachs. Unfortunately, it’s harder than ever for young Americans to get an education. College tuition costs continue to rise, while aid has been reduced. “The result is a $1 trillion mountain of student debt and a generation of young people with half-finished bachelor’s degrees facing a precarious future,” Sachs continues.

The lack of access to higher education has a direct impact on the growing income inequality. “The U.S. political divide is increasingly a divide between those with a college degree and those without.” In the recent presidential election, for instance, college-educated Americans voted for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 52-42. Those without a college degree voted for Trump by a similar margin. In an irony that has been pointed out since he took office, Trump’s policies only serve to further marginalize those who voted him into office.

Despite the social factors contributing to the diminishing wellbeing of Americans, politicians are unwilling or unable to approach the issue with any nuance. They can't see beyond economic growth, and Republican policies only ensure the growth of the wealthiest Americans, meaning income inequality will only worsen and with it the happiness of the vast majority of Americans.

Sachs offered five ways in which the government can address the social crisis, including campaign finance reform, outlining policies that will reduce income inequality, improving relations between native-born Americans and immigrants, moving past the fear caused by 9/11 and improving access to education.

These five prescriptions are how the 2017 World Happiness Report ends, which is depressing considering how the Trump administration is actively undermining all five. Until they are addressed, happiness in America will continue to plummet. If the government is going to continue to shape policy around its own self interests, then it's up to the people to do what they can to bring about change.

"[These issues] are so important and basic for us to understand," Sachs said on Monday. "We will not be happy if our governments are dysfunctional, if businesses are cheating, if we can't trust each other and if inequality is so high that people are at each other's throats. We can't trust [governments] if they cut the top tax rates and throw 20 million people off of the health plan. How could any government of decency think that this is an approach that makes any sense in our world today?

"Some governments and politicians, maybe they don't care, but we do care. This is a report for the people and it's a warning to politicians. If happiness is going down, we're coming after you. We've got to have an equality of life. When [Professor Easterlin] wrote the paper in 1974, we were already rich enough to be happy. Now we're so much richer than we were before. This is not a matter of the economy, it's a matter of human decency."