SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to the happiest countries around the globe, the United States has slipped another notch on the list to No. 19, according to Gallup’s annual reckoning for the United Nations. Finland is the happiest place, while South Sudan is the least happy.
But Americans are the glummest they’ve been since the report became an annual event in 2012.
The World Happiness Report surveyed people in 156 countries and based its definition of happiness on per capita GDP, healthy life expectancy, personal freedom, social support, generosity and perceptions of corruption. The report was released Wednesday.
The increasing challenge of addiction across America might be the reason the nation’s smile has slipped for the third year in a row, said one of the report’s authors, Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
“This year’s report provides sobering evidence of how addictions are causing considerable unhappiness and depression in the U.S.,” said Sachs, who notes there are many types of addictions, including substance abuse, gambling and overuse of digital media. “The compulsive pursuit of substance abuse and addictive behaviors is causing severe unhappiness. Government, business and communities should use these indicators to set new policies aimed at overcoming these sources of unhappiness.”
It’s not the only report to find gloomy news about America’s mental state. In January, another Gallup poll found that just one-fourth of Americans like the “direction things are going” in the United States, though 77 percent are satisfied with their overall quality of life. And more than 6 in 10 said they believe people can improve their situation by working hard. But just 26 percent were satisfied with such aspects of American society as morality and ethics.
Meanwhile, the newly released 2018 General Social Survey found that young adult happiness is at a record low, with just one-fourth of young adults ages 18 to 34 saying they are “very happy.” And the Institute for Family Studies just republished an article on the declining state of mental health among America’s youths by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who often writes about the negative impact of technology overuse on mental well-being.
Lots of places are singing the blues, and most countries’ people are far less happy than Americans, despite the downward trend in the U.S.
The World Happiness Report findings are based on the Gallup World Poll, which has been taken since 2005. According to the news release accompanying the annual report, “When you factor in recent growth, world happiness has fallen in recent years, driven by the sustained and downward trend in India. As for emotions, there has been a widespread recent upward trend in negative affect, comprising worry, sadness and anger, especially marked in Asia and Africa and more recently elsewhere.”
“The rewards are mostly going to the very rich. In fact, the vast majority of people have seen little growth in their pay and substantial decline in employment security during the past several decades.”
Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, a family therapist
The report looks closely at “community” — both geographic communities and social networks — and looked at how happiness levels have changed over time, “with a focus on the technologies, social norms, conflicts and government policies that have driven those changes.” Various chapters also examine the effects of generosity and other prosocial behaviors, how one’s happiness influences voting and how internet use and addictions impact happiness, both good and bad.
Technology isn’t the only suspected contributor to the glum findings. Some believe the increasing gap between the richest and poorest people in the world — and in America, as well — causes some dismay.
“Prosperity may be rising by some measures, but it is far from evenly distributed,” said family therapist Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, author of “Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents.” People are working harder than ever, for longer hours, without sharing in the rewards of their productivity, he added.
“The rewards are mostly going to the very rich. In fact, the vast majority of people have seen little growth in their pay and substantial decline in employment security during the past several decades. It can prove difficult to be happy when facing the stress of overwork and economic insecurity,” said Dolan-Del Vecchio.
Happiness is more than a feel-good emotion. Experts claim it boosts overall health and well-being. Professor, psychologist and researcher Edward F. Diener, one of the world’s most recognized happiness experts — he wrote the book “Happiness” — said happiness might even extend life when the Deseret News interviewed him in 2017.
Diener led an in-depth study on happiness to review what had been proven by research about happiness and its impact. He and his colleagues examined 20 earlier study reviews and more than 150 new studies, and their findings were published by Applied Psychology. “It’s a very strong showing that happiness is probably good for health,” he told the Deseret News, calling happiness “good in general. Happy workers, for example, are more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, steal less from their workplace and help other workers more.”
Diener and other happiness researchers also point out that giving one’s time and resources to help others can boost happiness. According to the new World Happiness Report, nearly two-thirds of American adults reported donating to charity within the past month, while more than 4 in 10 volunteered their time and effort.
What else can people do to increase their personal happiness?
Dolan-Del Vecchio suggests devoting “more time and energy to face-to-face relationships with other people and less to relationships with things, starting with cellphones and other things with screens.”
Diener, too, noted the importance of “supportive social relationships,” something he said all genuinely happy people have.
Cutting back consumerism will help, too, according to Dolan-Del Vecchio, who recommends people ignore the “continuous barrage” of advertising. “Shiny new things will bring only a short burst of happiness, if even that.”
He suggests families talk together about wants versus needs and how they are different. “Buy what you need, get your joy primarily through relationships and time spent with loved ones and, if possible, put some money aside for savings to build your family’s financial security.”
Knowing how the world works and sharpening critical thinking skills also builds happiness, said Dolan-Del Vecchio. “We can do this by reading well-researched, in-depth journalism and giving less attention to shallow infotainment. And we can use our knowledge as motivations to get actively involved in movements for social justice.”
Also on Diener’s list was finding meaning and purpose, caring about others and getting out of poverty. And he noted that mental illness “devastates happiness,” so people who struggle with that should make getting help a priority.