UN International Happiness Day: Why is the U.S. So Unhappy?


There are some characteristics common to happy countries. These include a feeling of safety, a good standard of living, nationwide prosperity, freedom to make important life decisions, and a belief in the "goodness" of your neighbors. In the United States, most of these attributes have declined as a result of the economic collapse fueled by foreclosures, layoffs, and lost wealth. Consequently, it appears that money, safety, and freedom are the keys to a happy country.

There has been much debate about what creates personal happiness. We have all heard too many overly used aphorisms similar to:

- Money can’t buy you happiness.

"Expect everything, and anything seems nothing. Expect nothing, and anything seems everything." -Samuel Hazo

"The conviction of the rich that the poor are happier is no more foolish than the conviction of the poor that the rich are." - Mark Twain

In the U.S. the only guarantee of happiness is the right to pursue it. Our shared belief is that happiness is determined by the individual. However, a good question to ask is how does the U.S. compare to other countries? According to a recent article published in Forbes, the U.S. is a distant 12th in the rankings. The top ten for countries for happiness include:

1. Norway

2. Denmark

3. Sweden

4. Australia

5. New Zealand

6. Canada

7. Finland

8. Netherlands

9. Switzerland

10. Ireland

These countries in general have the following institutional characteristics:

1. National health care either through a federal system (most common), mandatory insurance similar to the ACA such as Switzerland, or blended systems like Ireland.

2. Low unemployment and/or strong benefits for the poor

3. Democratically elected governments

4. Relative cultural uniformity

5. Very little direct involvement in war or other conflicts.

In the U.S., our health care system is still in turmoil. Those on the right are predicting doomsday as a result of Obamacare, while those on the left are predicting rainbows and butterflies. Our unemployment is listed at around 8%, but our actual unemployment is much higher since we do not count people who have given up looking for work. People on the right claim that our social welfare system has created generational poverty through government dependence. However, in most states able bodied individuals without children typically only qualify for food stamps and limited Medicaid. People on the left would prefer European-style limited socialism, which would be unsustainable with our current economic situation. Our government is elected, but we are a republic as opposed to a parliamentary system. Our culture is not uniform whatsoever, as we can see by the large divide between red vs. blue states. Finally, we can’t keep ourselves out of foreign conflicts, with more conflict on the horizon with countries such as North Korea and Iran. It is no wonder that the U.S. has fallen in the rankings of happiness. 

Other studies of what makes a country happy (such as a recent Gallup poll) ended up with a very different list of happiest countries. However, this data was reported by sampling the survey responses of individuals. On this very different list, the United States was further from the top ten for happy countries than in the Legatum Prosperity Index discussed in the Forbes article.

If the U.S. wants to make the country a happier place to live we must take a compromise position from both of our major political parties:

1. Tackle unemployment  increasing personal income will lead to feeling safer and more secure.

2. Expand National Health Care Coverage  the ACA may not be the best answer, but it is a start toward ensuring everyone has some sort of health coverage.

3. Continue the downward trend in crime  the violent crime rate has fallen almost continuously since 1994. The country as a whole must continue to do what is necessary to preserve our safety.

4. Take care of our poor  this means doing more than just issuing money. We must help the poor break the generational cycles of poverty.

5. Stay out of new conflicts  The U.S. must look at ways to decrease tensions with other countries. We are within two years of open conflict with Iran and North Korea if we continue on our current path.

6. Find a way to unite the country  instead of learning to work together, our government has become more partisan and divided. This contributes to our national sense of frustration.

The U.S. is not a happy country at the moment. However, we have the potential to do much better. Although happiness resides within the individual, the country as a whole can help or hinder the pursuit of happiness.