America is a prosperous nation, but not a super happy one. That’s been true for a while. But the policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party are making matters worse. That’s according to the latest “World Happiness Report,” which is put together by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network in conjunction with the United Nations.
Per capita income in America has tripled since the 1960s, but we are no happier now, collectively, than we were then. “Per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling,” writes Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, one of the report’s authors. Indeed, in 2007 America ranked third in happiness among the 35 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. By 2016, we were down to 19th place.
A rising per capita GDP, after all, doesn’t mean much in a nation with rapidly growing inequality. To get that number, economists simply divide the value of the nation’s total economic output by the population. So if the rich are getting vastly richer while the poor have stagnant wages, per capita GDP may increase anyway. Boosting a person’s income, in any case, only goes so far in contributing to their well-being. Once your basic needs are reasonably met—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment—it’s pretty well established that more money doesn’t equal more happiness.
Poverty, though, begets misery. According to a chapter of the report titled, “The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery,” the biggest contributors to misery in America are, in this order, a diagnosed mental illness (anxiety, depression), poverty, and not having a partner—followed by physical illness, joblessness, and lack of education. So it’s easy to see how kicking people off health insurance and cutting anti-poverty programs and education will make us more miserable.
The report’s overview notes that “increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.” America is on the opposite track. Economic growth has long been the holy grail in Washington. That applies to both parties, but it is especially true of the Republicans and the Trump administration, who are now rushing to eliminate all kinds of regulations on the grounds that they interfere with growth. Never mind that many of these rules contribute to our well-being in other ways: protecting people’s retirement savings; ensuring that Americans have decent health care and a social safety net; preventing rapacious industries from befouling the air, water, and atmosphere. As the leaders of 137 nonprofit groups put it in a recent letter to the White House, “Americans did not vote to be exposed to more health, safety, environmental and financial dangers.”
Trump’s budget blueprint calls for drastic cuts that could make a lot of people—including many of his core supporters—substantially more miserable. And Trump has gone around stoking divisions, using Islamic terrorism as a bogeyman to justify the exclusion of Muslim refugees and the addition of $54 billion to a military budget that is already, by a huge margin, the planet’s largest.
The authors of the happiness report used six measures to determine each nation’s “subjective wellbeing.” America has improved on the material measures (per capita income and healthy life expectancy) over the past decade. But it has fared worse on the social measures, which include the generosity of charitable giving; public support and safety net; perceived corruption in government and business; and freedom (a measure based on a people’s wealth, education and skills, rights as citizens, and democratic representation in government).
“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis,” Sachs writes in the chapter “Restoring American Happiness.” He goes on…
Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington, DC, centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed. First, most of the pseudo-elixirs for growth—especially the Republican Party’s beloved nostrum of endless tax cuts and voodoo economics—will only exacerbate America’s social inequalities and feed the distrust that is already tearing society apart. Second, a forthright attack on the real sources of social crisis would have a much larger and more rapid beneficial effect on US happiness.
As Sachs points out, income inequality in America is soaring and trust in our government is at “its lowest level in modern history.” Perceived corruption is also on the rise—the result, Sachs writes, of the “profoundly damaging” Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision that further expanded the political influence of billionaire megadonors: “There is a strong and correct feeling among Americans that the government does not serve their interest, but rather the interest of powerful lobbies, wealthy Americans, and of course, the politicians themselves.”
Sachs cites research showing a sharp decline in “helping behavior”—the willingness to do something kind for a stranger (often measured by how many people will go out of their way to mail addressed, stamped envelopes the researchers scatter around public places)—from 2001 to 2011. He also points to the recent “startling” rise in mortality rates for middle-aged, non-Hispanic whites, mainly the result of “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.” Economically and ethnically segregated communities are another factor, he writes, as are the deterioration of our educational system and the legacy of America’s response to the 9/11 attacks:
The US government launched an open-ended global war on terror, appealing to the darkest side of human nature by invoking a stark “us versus them” dualism, and terrifying American citizens through the government’s projections of fear…The US remains traumatized to this day; Trump’s ban on travel to the United States from certain Muslim-majority countries is a continuing manifestation of the exaggerated and irrational fears that grip the nation.
“In sum,” he writes, “the United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness in all the wrong places.”