News & Politics

A Worldwide Ranking Says Americans Aren't as Happy as We Used to Be

The U.S. happiness ranking dropped significantly in the past year.

Photo Credit: cheapbooks / Shutterstock

In the 2018 World Happiness Report, released Wednesday, Finland has jumped four spots since 2017 to succeed Norway as the happiest country. Conversely, the United States fell as many spots, to number 18.

Aside from Finland’s surge and Sweden stealing the ninth position from Australia, the top 10 remained intact. As was the case last year, the top five countries were grouped so closely that they fell within the same statistical confidence band. The United States’ northern and southern neighbors were stable at worst: Canada held its ground at seventh; Mexico jumped a spot to 24th.

Data suggest it’s no coincidence that relative unhappiness in the U.S. coincides with the election of President Trump. A June 2017 Gallup poll found that 25 percent of Americans listed the government as the most important problem facing the country, up from only 8 percent in October 2016. Dissatisfaction with the government has remained the most cited problem since, hovering between 20 percent and 25 percent.

The survey took into account eight principal metrics—GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of government corruption—and weighted the results according to population to determine the “happiness” of one of 156 countries.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and co-editor of the report, blames the United States’ low ranking on “three interrelated epidemic diseases, notably obesity, substance abuse (especially opioid addiction), and depression.”

“Each of these constitutes a significant burden of disease, and each is likely to be causing a significant decrement to U.S. subjective well-being,” Sachs wrote in “America’s Health Crisis and the Easterlin Paradox,” one of seven essays comprising the 167-page report. “Each could be ameliorated through public policies that would contribute measurably to U.S. well-being.”

“We obviously have a social crisis in the United States: more inequality, less trust, less confidence in government,” Sachs told Reuters.

While the Nordic countries swept the top four spots of the Happiness Report, Africa was heavily represented at the bottom of the list with the four least happy countries: Tanzania, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Burundi.

In the U.S. since 1972, GDP per capita has steadily increased while subjective well-being (SWB) has plateaued, a phenomenon called the Easterlin Paradox.

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Brendan Gauthier is a freelance writer and nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia University.