Lost in the newswire on Monday, amidst rampant tales of presidential corruption and Twitter misinformation, was my favorite story. It was a story about happiness. The release of the World Happiness Report tells us which countries, and which leaders, are doing well by their people, and which are not. America is not.
To me, there is no more apt measure of the greatness of a country than that of the happiness of its people. By that measure, America is failing.
In the report, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are all in the top ten. The other 5 are Nordic countries. Norway edged out Denmark this year as the happiest place on Earth.
Some of the factors that go into these rankings are life expectancy, freedom of choice, social support, and trust in government. Life is better when your leaders are not constantly lying to you. Life is better when access to health care is universal. Life is better when no one falls through the cracks.
The United States itself fell to 14th on the list this year, dropping one spot from 2016. Not surprising. The last year was filled with a presidential campaign fraught with mistrust, hate, and fear. The final candidates in the election cycle were both under FBI investigation for degrees of corruption. The health care system is under fire. Vying for power instead of progress, political leaders have stoked intolerance to critical levels. The left and the right stand polarized.
But as the Economist points out, the greatest nations on Earth borrow much from the left and much from the right. The quest for universal bliss has no room for dogmatic ideology. Great nations serve their people, not their politics.
Jeffrey Sachs, the author and economist, wrote a great article on the subject. The article is filled with facts and figures, charts and diagrams, and was included in the World Happiness Report. It’s not especially long, but you might be tempted to save it for later. That would be a shame. If you did you might miss this closing paragraph by Sachs:
To escape this social quagmire, America’s happiness agenda should center on rebuilding social capital. This will require a keen focus on the five main factors that have contributed to falling social trust and confidence in government. The first priority should be campaign finance reform, especially to undo the terrible damage caused by the Citizens United decision. The second should be a set of policies aiming at reducing income and wealth inequality. This would include an expanded social safety net, wealth taxes, and greater public financing of health and education. The third should be to improve the social relations between the native-born and immigrant populations. Canada has demonstrated a considerable success with multiculturalism; the United States has not tried very hard. The fourth is to acknowledge and move past the fear created by 9/11 and its memory. 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. The fifth priority, I believe, should be on improved educational quality, access, and attainment. America has lost the edge in educating its citizens for the 21st century; that fact alone ensures a social crisis that will continue to threaten well-being until the commitment to quality education for all is once again a central tenet of American society.
Jeffrey Sachs summed it up nicely. The reason America has fallen so far is because it has lost focus on the purpose of a nation: to lift its people. The original promise of America, set forth by its founders, was to build a nation based on the general welfare, equality, and liberty of the people. To ensure their pursuit of happiness. In that, of late, we have formed a less perfect union.
The blueprint is there. The richest country in the world can yet become the happiest nation on the planet. It will require an evolution of culture and a resistance to corruption that, so far, America has spurned. But the United States is young. By returning to the original premise of its founding documents and by shifting focus back to the elevation of its people, America can evolve. America can be great. At last.