Is Happiness In America an Illusory Goal



n January, 2008 the book, “The Geography of Bliss, One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” was published.  It was a sort of travelogue written by Eric Weiner about the relative happiness of the average person in places as diverse as Bhutan and Iceland.  Although the author referenced studies related to happiness this was meant to be a good read, not a scholarly work.  Weiner did not rank the countries, but he supplied ample information to allow the reader to do so, and it could be argued that the happiest place he visited was Iceland and the unhappiest was Moldova.  

The surprise was that income, past the point of supplying basic needs, did not contribute much to happiness.  Community and fairness seemed much more important.  The people of Bhutan seemed fairly happy, despite the fact that it is a small and fairly poor country.  The emperor was educated in Britain and encouraged the formation of a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy.

Most notable, perhaps, is that the emperor measured success not as Gross National Product, but Gross National Happiness.


In 2012, the first World Happiness Report was issued by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network at the request of a U.N High Level Meeting on happiness and well-being.

The results followed a simple question that went like this.  “Imagine that you are on a ladder with ten rungs.  Each rung goes from the lowest where you are most unhappy to the top where you are most happy.  Which rung are you on.”

Each year from 2012 to 2017 the results are reported as an average of the most recent three years.  In 2017 Norway was happiest with Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland closely behind.  What do these countries have in common? “All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.”

Please note; most of the factors contributing to happiness are social.

Norway is a wealthy country due to its oil wealth.  However, some maintain that Norwegians are happy despite their oil wealth because the nation chooses to produce oil slowly and reinvest the income in projects that will benefit all.

 The U.S. ranked 3rd on a “happiness” survey in 2007; by 2016 - in the study commissioned by the U.N. - the U.S. had fallen to 16th, and for 2017 the U.S. ranks 14th just below Austria and just above Ireland.

Around the world people are struggling.  In China people are no happier than they were 25 years ago.  Japan, which has a uniform population, a high standard of living, no gun violence and a good universal healthcare system, ranked far below the U.S. in happiness.

Most of the results are no surprise.  Members of the former Soviet Union such as the Eastern European nations and the “stans” (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan etc.) are moderately unhappy.  North African countries are lower, and the least happy are in sub-Saharan Africa with the Central African Republic being most unhappy.




A recent Gallup Poll using the Gallup-Sharecare Well-being Index showed a shift in the sense of well-being in America.  No state showed an increase in well-being, while nearly half (21 states) showed a decrease in the sense of well-being.  This seems odd if you think a strong economy should make people happy.  The previous record for a decreased sense in well-being was in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession when 15 states showed a decline in overall happiness.

Furthermore, the distribution of the states in which Americans feel more unhappy overlaps a great deal with the states which Donald Trump won in the 2016 election.

The “Sharecare” index is explained thus:

“Well-being is a concept that captures the important aspects of how people feel about and experience their daily lives. Encompassing more than just physical health or economic indicators, well-being includes five essential elements: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical.”

In the 2017 report the following assessment was made:

“Although improvements in certain physical health categories and community well-being signal progress, the sharp declines in overall well-being were driven by drops in purpose and social well-being metrics, as well as the mental health aspects of physical well-being. Out of a possible score of 100, the national Well-Being Index score dropped from 62.1 in 2016 to 61.5 in 2017, marking the largest year-over-year decline since the index began in 2008.”

The highest ranking state in terms of overall well-being was South Dakota (which ranked high in ‘purpose”), followed by Vermont (which ranked high in social well-being) and Hawaii (which ranked in purpose, social and community well-being).


So, what does any of this bode for America’s future?

We cannot achieve the level of overall well-being seen in the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland.  What they share is a form of democratic socialism which the most miserable in America abhor as the road to a “nanny” state. 

In the Gallup-Sharecare poll there was a paradox.  While Americans are doing better than ever at regular exercise and smoking cessation, the rates of obesity, diabetes and depression remain high.  Over 20% of Americans are now considered chronically depressed.  One cause of depression is having life problems that one is helpless to correct.

Loneliness is normal.  Chronic lonelinessis not.  In Children it leads to inability to form relationships, school dropout and other problems.  In adults, loneliness contributes to depression and health problems.  We need inclusion in a group and we need close relationships.

The question not addressed in any of these studies is what can be done about chronic loneliness, unhappiness, and a diminished sense of well-being.  On a visceral level we know something is wrong.  In the U.S. there is a basic suspicion of government, unlike in the Scandinavian countries.  The basic premise in those countries is that government works for the citizens.  Although that is asserted here, everyone believes that government works for someone else; for some other group. 

For some that other group is lazy people on welfare.  For others it is big business.  Whoever we imagine we believe that government does not serve us.  For the same reason we cannot accept a universal healthcare system dedicated not just to fixing sick people, but also promotion of health and prevention of disease.

What are the factors that interfere with having a sense of purpose, a sense of group identity and sense that there is a safety net to catch us when we fall?  Those social factors that support a sense of well-being may be the main reason for our unhappiness and loneliness.

Is there any role for government in promoting these essentials for happiness?  Are these things missing because of changes in modern society that are unavoidable?

At one time, not long ago, community was established through work.  The work itself might be dirty, boring or even dangerous, but families of steel workers, coal miners and auto workers found a sense of shared life experience that drew them together.  The loss of such employment has led to loss of purpose, loss of community, and loss of the security associated with employment

Miners and manufacturers had place based employment.  Modern service jobs like restaurant work don’t seem to provide that community.  People try to find connection but are often left lonely and hopeless.

On a worldwide basis people are turning to authoritarian leaders.  Why is that?  What promise do they give to lonely people?  In the U.S. we know about President Trump and his promises.  He has fostered the idea that some other group is responsible for your unhappiness.  All sorts of minorities, especially “Mexicans” have been made scapegoats.

Never mentioned is the hopelessness produced by steadily increasing wealth inequality, threats to our social safety net, and loss of purpose.


Views: 192

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 12, 2018 at 1:42am

In an interview about Steven Pinker's latest book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker takes what appears to some to be an overly optimistic view of our time.  This statement came from that interview.

"Pinker: One impulse comes from a feature of human cognition called the availability heuristic or the availability bias. Namely, that we assess risk and danger by the availability of stories and images in memory [that make us] assume an activity is particularly dangerous. If the news gives saturation coverage of a terrorist attack, we assume that life has become more dangerous. That contrasts with a view of the world informed by data and history, which don’t come as naturally to us but which are essential to an accurate appraisal of reality.

The other quirk has been called the negativity bias, namely our habit of devoting more mental attention and giving greater weight to negative events than positive ones. We dread losses more than we enjoy gains. We are stung by criticism more than we are encouraged by praise. There are more words for negative emotions than for positive emotions. And so we’re particularly attuned to all of the ways that things go wrong. That opens a niche for experts who can remind us of things that are going wrong that we may have overlooked.

We also tend to credit greater seriousness and intelligence to experts who criticize things than to experts who praise them. Praise is sometimes seen as naive or pollyannaish, and criticism as morally serious."

Pinker seems to feel that, although we feel that we are living in dark times, things are not as bad as they seem.

I haven't read the book, but Bill Gates calls it his "new favorite book of all time."

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 12, 2018 at 2:01am

Steven Pinker was "Humanist of the Year" a few years back.  He holds reason to be a virtue.  When confronted with the comment that everyone uses reason he replied, "It’s not true that everyone appeals to reason. You have the famous billboard and bumper sticker: 'Jesus said it, I believe it, that decides it.' "

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on March 12, 2018 at 6:21am

I'm slowly coming to the realization that Americans are a bunch of whiny, spoiled children.  

We are "unhappy" and "depressed", yet OUR children aren't slowly starving to death, OUR families aren't suffering through the abuses of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, WE aren't being murdered by multi-million dollar F-16s dropping $20,000 bombs on our hovels that might be worth $20, our babies aren't being killed in front of us.

Rich, spoiled and arrogant people like us pretty much need to STFU, begin acting like adults and start caring for the BILLIONS of less fortunate people around the word.  THAT will make us less unhappy and depressed.

Comment by Steel Breeze on March 12, 2018 at 7:21am

coupla things.....not sure what the definition of 'happy' is,but,based on how others see it i can say i've never been 'happy'.....likewise i've never been 'depressed'.....if i ever had a goal in that area, it was to just be content...which for a short period i was....but absolutely none of my asessment of my mental state of the moment was influenced by the current social,economic,political,etc conditions.....just personal interaction.....

then again,i can still remeber a time when walkin down the street i would grin like a fool jus because i felt so damned good....."Like a Rock"...

Comment by Anna Herrington on March 12, 2018 at 8:15am

Seems to me when happiness is the goal it is usually illusory, but when reaching for an achievement goal or when helping others or for so many, being outside, or just when turning off the whirring mind and 'being' where you are, then 'happiness' is more likely to accompany.

Personally, chasing happiness as a singular goal is like deciding to lasso a dragonfly and trying to make it behave like a lap cat. Good luck with that  : )

Although contentment might sit around with you and purr for awhile....  

And Amy, YES! So true and what I wake up and remember every morning - and especially every night when I have a pillow and bed and roof and loved ones near and far and no bombs dropping outside. 

(Of course, my activist mind immediately thinks of chemical bombs dropped in our food, earth pillaging by our leaders, our wildlife species having all sanctuary ripped away, but.... another time.  It's not Syria.)

Comment by Ron Powell on March 12, 2018 at 11:24am

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

----The Declaration of Independence

For most Americans, "happiness" is indeed an "illusory goal". One thing is certain, "happiness" is not a "place" or "location".

The Declaration of Independence asserts that "the pursuit of happiness" is an unalienable  (human) right.

The Constitution doesn't acknowledge, recognize, guarantee, or protect any such thing...

Thus we are left to our own devices to define and pursue our own happiness as individuals in our own way and within a moral and ethical framework of our own choice or making.

Many can't achieve happiness because they can't define it for themselves or have no idea of what happiness is or entails...

Whatever happiness is as a psychological or emotional condition, it is temporary and fleeting.

We are free to pursue our happiness, whatever that is or might be, and catch small snatches and moments of euphoria.

But, it's never a permanent or stable condition. I don't believe anyone can become and remain truly happy for any sustained period or substantial length of time.

We have the right to pursue happiness but have no concomitant right to be happy.

That's why the government is supposed to stay of the happiness business altogether.

The problem is that it doesn't and won't as long as we permit inequity, disparity, and disproportion to be the benchmarks of governance.

There is a disconnect and an ever widening gap between our Democratic principles on our egalitarian impulses and values.

If we don't figure out a way to close the gap and reconnect with the egalitarian impulse that is also articulated in the Declaration of Independence, we will lose the opportunity to create the social and political environment in which each of us has an equal opportunity to exercise the right to pursue our happiness whatever that might be..

Furthermore, I'm in full agreement with Amy. 

Comment by moki ikom on March 12, 2018 at 12:39pm

Amy nails it...  "Americans are a bunch of whiny, spoiled children" we are led by adults not children our self-absorption is not merely childish, but immoral.  One may wonder of the prospects of trying to marry immorality and happiness ... clearly it makes for a happy marriage among some -but a majority or a ruling minority?-- Americans.

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 12, 2018 at 6:42pm

The use of the word "happiness" in the Declaration of Independence has been traced by many to the writings of John Locke who argued that government existed to protect an individual's "property" which he defined as "life, liberty and estate."  In 1776 happiness had more to do with well-being than pleasure.  Well being then may have referred to possessions.  Whatever the case, the phrase did not say happiness; it said "pursuit of happiness."  Thomas Jefferson who wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was a great believer in self-reliance, and while he may have thought it was government's job to protect one's right to pursue happiness, he would not have thought it government's job to guarantee it.

The comment by Amy's comment that "Americans are a bunch of whiny, spoiled children" and everyone's subsequent agreement caught me off guard, not because i disagree, but because it wasn't what I expected.

The Gallup poll map is interesting because the unhappy people live not just in Red states, but Blue.  This is a gross over-generalization, but it has seemed to me from childhood when my California cousins came to visit, that there is a paradox in the fact that people who live in what looks a lot like paradise feel greatly put upon when anything unpleasant happens, and think that it the job of someone else to fix it, as in "they"need to do something about this..  "They" seemed to refer to government agencies, but it was pretty nebulous.

It seems from taking to my conservative friends - I recommend having them, they keep you from getting trapped in a bubble - is that those who voted fro Trump did so because they felt their privilege being threatened. That privilege includes not only white privilege, but gender privilege.  They well-off white women who voted for Trump know, at least subconsciously, that they have what they have through their relationship with connected men.  Unexpectedly, they are the ones most angry and vicious in their attacks on anyone they see as a threat to what they have.

Comment by koshersalaami on March 12, 2018 at 9:43pm

My guess is that if we were to really look at a decline in reported American happiness a lot would come down to a consequence of economics, specifically that people chase good jobs away from their original communities. Families are more spread out and less connected. Friendships are newer and not as established if they’re established at all. Work friendships are less stable as work is less stable.

Why do you think we’re all here?

Comment by Rodney Roe on March 12, 2018 at 11:36pm

kosh, in your faith I think it is "to repair a broken world".  In the Unitarian community I belong to, we pledge to "...dwell together in peace, to speak the truth in love, and to help each other."

Friendship and a sense of community are built on trust, and a large source of our collective unhappiness is a loss of trust.

Also, I think we've lost purpose, so like the characters in that video from the series, Bored to Death, we are "bored to death and mad and lonely."


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