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The Happiest Nations in the World, and Why America Isn’t One of Them

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If you think the US is the greatest nation in the world, you’re mistaken. The overall happiness and mental-health of Americans have been in sharp decline for the past decade. Here’s why.


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The annual World Happiness Report (WHR) ranks 156 nations across the globe by the reported happiness of each nation’s citizens.

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The rankings come from Gallup’s world poll, which surveys people from countries all over the world every year and asks them about their well-being. The WHR uses the survey to rank these nations by happiness and then uses six variables to attempt to explain those rankings.

The six variables are:

  • GDP per capita
  • Social support
  • Life expectancy
  • Freedom
  • Generosity
  • Absence of corruption

The top 10 happiest nations in the world

Four of the five countries which make up Scandinavia—Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland—appear in the top five happiest nations. And the fifth Scandinavian nation, Sweden, is the seventh happiest. Other countries in the top 10 are the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Austria.

Americans are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time.

The declining happiness of Americans

You might expect the US to appear in the top 10, but that isn’t the case. In fact, it hasn’t been the case since at least before the United Nations released the first World Happiness Report in 2012. The highest the US has ever ranked in this report was 13th in 2016. This year, 2019, the US barely made the top 20, screeching in at position 19.

Why?

An entire chapter of the World Happiness Report was dedicated to answering that question. What researchers found was that “Numerous indicators of low psychological well-being such as depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm increased sharply among adolescents since 2010.” (Most of the data used in the report are on adolescents because studies on adults in this field are sparse. But numbers for adults and adolescents are estimated to be similar.)

The Happiest Nations in the World, and Why America Isn't One of Them

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What’s strange about this sharp decline in happiness is that when compared to the six indicators used to explain a nation’s overall happiness, the US is actually doing really well. “The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades,” according to the WHR.

Happiness should rise with the standard of living, but paradoxically, the opposite has been the case in the US.

Instead of increased happiness, the report observes, “Americans are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time.”

So how do Americans spend their leisure time? In 2017, “The average 12th grader (17-18 years old) spent more than 6 hours a day of leisure time on just three digital media activities (internet, social media and texting…).”

As screen time has risen, face-to-face connection with other people has decreased. “In 2016, iGen college-bound high school seniors spent an hour less a day on face-to-face interaction than GenX adolescents did in the late 1980s.”

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Having a smartphone doesn’t just affect how we spend our time, however. It also impacts how we don’t spend our time. For example, we spend less time participating in activities that do not involve screens, such as “reading books,” “sleeping” and even “attending religious services,” according to the WHR.

Worst of all, our smartphones are chipping away at our mental health. One study showed that “girls spending 5 or more hours a day on social media are three times more likely to be depressed than non-users.”

In other words, the answer to the age-old question, “What is the key to happiness?” is, put your phone down.

Should we get rid of our smartphones?

In an attempt to resist technology’s addictive tug on their minds, some people boycott smartphones and social media altogether. But technology isn’t going anywhere, which means avoiding it is merely prolonging the inevitable. Eventually, we’ll have to exercise self-control, not just evasion.

The good news is developing simple habits, such as limiting screen time, could boost your happiness and mental health. The WHR reported an experiment where college students were asked “to limit their social media use to 10 minutes a day per platform and no more than 30 minutes a day total, compared to a control group that continued their normal use. Those who limited their use were less lonely and less depressed over the course of several weeks.”

The steady decline of America’s happiness is a sobering reminder that digital connection is no replacement for real community.