Illustration: Ashley Siebels
When it comes to measures of happiness, Scandinavian countries persistently beat the U.S. This year is no different.
So who is reportedly the happiest? Norway is at the top of the heap in the World Happiness Report this year. Up from fourth place in 2016, the nation is trailed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland.
Those top four countries have high levels of these elements: “caring,” “freedom,” “generosity,” “honesty,” “health,” “income,” and “good governance.”
Good for them — but the document comes down really hard on America. The report’s author on “Restoring American Happiness,” Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, painted the United States as a gloomy nation “looking for happiness ‘in all the wrong places,'” and said that the “country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse.”
That doesn’t seem to be the complete picture, however, once you look at the factors that the report’s authors use to establish happiness.
As for the United States, while certain points about the nation’s current state are definitely valid, and the nation is certainly not as “happy” as it could be, it could have been ranked higher than spot #14.
The unhappy United States of America
Some of the criticisms of the US in the World Happiness Report 2017 are already well-established.
Americans aren’t even as giving as they used to be, apparently. A 2016 study found that “there has been a 10 percent decline in helping behavior in the United States, but not in Canada.” The World Happiness Report 2017 noted that as a strike against America and said that “the extent of pro-social behavior among Americans is on the decline.”
You still need a college degree to make more money. A 2014 Pew Research article stated that “young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education” — to the tune of $17,500 more in salary per year.
The U.S. isn’t so bad, actually
Certain misconceptions about the current state of the US could have pushed the nation from being higher up on the 155-nation list.
For instance, Sachs uses the U.S. political situation to argue that the country is unhappy.
He writes the recent presidential election is proof that “the U.S. political divide is increasingly a divide between those with a college degree and those without.” He uses that divide, and implicitly, the rise of Donald Trump, as a strike against American happiness.
But Sachs isn’t exactly right. It’s true that blue-collar workers are unhappier than managers or executives, on the whole —perhaps due to harder labor and less autonomy.
But those dynamics are not necessarily related to the election.
For example, Trump voters were not necessary all as uneducated and/or lower-income as popularly portrayed. Those assumptions are based on exit polls, which are highly unscientific and inaccurate, because they’re based only on asking people how they voted. People can, of course, refuse to answer or talk about their vote, which leads to erratic results. That’s one reason exit polls failed to predict the outcome of the election.
“Most strikingly, Mr. Trump won his biggest margins among middle-income white voters, according to exit polls, a revolt not only of the white working class but of the country’s vast white middle class,” a New York Times article says.
It’s been 16 years since the 9/11 attacks
Another mark against the U.S., Sachs argues, is that the country has yet to “acknowledge and move past the fear from the 9/11 attacks.”
The World Happiness Report 2017 says that after that event, “America’s reaction to these unprecedented terrorist attacks was to stoke fear rather than appeal to social solidarity,” like starting “an open-ended war on terror.”
That theory, however, is hard to support. It’s been 16 years since the 9/11 attacks, and attacks on other Western countries, and a lot of policy has changed the country since then.
Immigration doesn’t necessarily harm U.S. happiness
The World Happiness Report 2017 says that there has been a “decline in social trust related to the post-1965 surge in immigration to the United States, especially the rise of the Hispanic population.”
To be clear, the report’s authors seem to suggest that immigration of Hispanic people to the U.S. is reducing the country’s happiness.
There are a few reasons to question this logic.
The first is that not every American feels the same way about immigration. Around two-thirds of Americans believe that undocumented immigrants to the U.S. should have a path to become legal, according to a recent CNN/ORC survey.
Additionally, immigrants largely don’t take jobs from native-born American citizens, the Brookings Institution found.
Campaign finance reform is unlikely to increase America’s happiness
Sachs claims that the first step to escaping America’s “social quagmire” and increasing our national happiness is campaign finance reform.
There is no support for that belief. There are, however, strong arguments for fixing social problems, including wages that have been stagnant for 40 years and problems with the educational system, as a way towards increased happiness.
Yes, your job will dictate your happiness
Interestingly, the type of job you have may also dictate your happiness. A Harvard Business review article analyzed the Gallup World Poll and found that blue-collar workers struggle to be happy — all over the world.
“The first thing we notice is that people working blue-collar jobs report lower levels of overall happiness in every region around the world. This is the case across a variety of labor-intensive industries like construction, mining, manufacturing, transport, farming, fishing, and forestry. People around the world who categorize themselves as a manager, an executive, an official, or a professional worker evaluate the quality of their lives at a little over 6 out of 10, whereas people working in farming, fishing, or forestry evaluate their lives around 4.5 out of 10 on average.”
There also seems to be a divide between managers and business owners.
Business owners reported having a lower quality of life than professional workers and managers, executives and officials did, including laughing less every day.
While the U.S. can and should be doing more to make blue-collar work more fulfilling for Americans, the problem is a global one. It may be that political concerns outweighed social ones in this year’s World Happiness Report.