The Unhappy States of America: three decades of decline in happiness

In the United States, the self-proclaimed greatest country on earth, people are in for a surprise when you ask them to guess how high the US ranks in the World Happiness Report 2015. The US takes the fifteenth spot with a 7.119, falling just below – God-forbid … Mexico! The top-three countries Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark trail the US by about 0.4 points.

unhappy America

Source: The Economist

Like any country in the world, the US is full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is the second largest economy, the leader of the Western world (except France), and home to the revolutionary digital industries of Silicon Valley. On the other hand, news about the US often talks about growing inequality, racial tensions, hardly affordable healthcare and education, and rising use of anti-depressants, and an inexplicable rigidity in gun policies. By some Europeans, it seen as a developed country trapped inside a developing one.

What went wrong?

So was the US a better place three decades ago?

Some people think it was. Proponents of alternative economic indicators to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have argued that since the start of neo-liberal Reaganomics, the focus has been too much on economic growth and too little on quality of life as a whole. For instance, the US Genuine Progress Indicator aims to measure exactly that: genuine progress, based on performance on economic, environmental and social issues. Comparing US scores from the 1950s until recent, it sees a peak in the 1970s. Since, the benefits of economic growth have been off-set by the cost of income inequality, leisure time, and environmental degradation.

Other studies, however, draw other conclusions. It’s often written  that happiness levels are remarkably stable in Western developed countries in the last 50 years. The World Values Survey does not show major movements since the 1980s. The World Happiness Report scores the US in 2015 (data from 2012-2014) only marginally lower, about -0.2, than in 2005-2007.

Three decades of growing inequality

Inequality is very often cited as one of the reasons related to the decreasing life satisfaction in the US. Stanford University has pooled a set of charts documenting the rise of inequality in the last decades:

  • In 1979, CEOs earned 35 times as much as the average production worker. In 2009, 185 times (after a peak of almost 300 in 2000!).
  • In real terms, only college graduates have seen their wages grow since 1979. This is not the case for people who attended but didn’t graduate college, or only have a high school degree. This ‘education wage premium’, however, comes at the cost of student loans up to $50,000 or $100,000, begging the question what is college worth?
  • From 1983 to 2007, the share of wealth of the upper 10% has increased from 68.2 to 73.1%, while the bottom 50% went from 6.1 to 4.2%.

The World Happiness Report also points out that increasing female labour market participation could be a factor in changes in happiness: since the mid-1970s, the share of female labour has increased. At the same time, the ‘happiness advantage’ of women over men has reversed, likely because many women tend to have lesser quality jobs in the US market.

What can be done about it?

At least according to the stereotypes, Americans more than any other nations are able to set an objective and go for it. That’s what the American dream is about. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, one of the contributors to the World Happiness Report, points out a couple of the answers. Increasing equality and social trust is where the answer starts. That also means a mental shift: a state providing healthcare or financing education shouldn’t be seen as giving ‘hand-outs’ or ‘redistribution’, but as a state that ensures that everybody can get ahead. In short, it’s about throwing some of solutions from Switzerland, Iceland or Denmark into the United States. If the US wants to be the best and greatest in happiness, drastically reducing social immobility and inequality is the first step to go.

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