Americans are obsessed with happiness. That much should probably be apparent from a quick Google search or a trip to your local bookstore, but if you need convincing, a host of experts will tell you that, thanks to a cultural fixation on positivity and the economic imperatives of the gigantic self-help industry, Americans are endlessly bombarded with happiness advice these days.
So is all the effort working? Are we all getting a bit more joyful?
Actually, it's the opposite, according to the latest edition of the annual World Happiness Report. This year, America slipped to 14th place (Norway came in first, with other Northern European countries rounding out the top of the list). And while that's not a terrible place to be in a report that covers 155 countries, it's just the latest demotion in a decade-long tumble down the happiness rankings.
In short, as Americans get ever more frantically fixated on happiness, we're also becoming measurably more miserable. What's gone wrong?
Can we blame our dysfunctional government for this too?
The authors of the new report aren't shy about pointing out the factors they believe are behind America's slide into unhappiness. They highlight the country's precipitous decline in trust in the government and society in general.
"What we learn about the United States is that, while income has been rising, the social qualities have been worsening--the level of trust, the confidence in our government, has been going down. This has been offsetting what otherwise would have made us feel better," Columbia University economist and report editor Jeffrey Sachs tells The Washington Post.
How to fix the issue is just as clear, according to Sachs: Americans need to wake up, remember that we're all in this together, and provide the basics that allow everyone to live with dignity and contribute to their fullest potential.
"While we have this image that America is this land of great opportunity, the truth is, the places we're talking about [at the top of the ranking] have high social mobility--meaning if you're born to a relatively poor family, it's not an obstacle, you'll be able to get an education and get ahead. In America, sadly, there's almost an immobility across generations," Sachs notes. (Despite America's love of a good rags-to-riches story, the data backs him up that social mobility is actually lower in the U.S. than in many other developed countries.)
In practice, that means, "making sure that everyone has access to what's important: universal health coverage. Universal education, from preschool up to university.... Good quality daycare while a mother goes off to work," Sachs concludes.
Chase happiness and it runs away.
The reality, of course, is that those ideas, while thoroughly uncontroversial in Europe, are more Bernie Sanders rally fever dream than legislative probability here in America. There are still actionable lessons to be learned from the Happiness Report, however. They are just more individual and less societal.
Corruption, social distrust, and the difficulties of navigating life without a basic social safety net all certainly contribute to America's lackluster performance in the happiness stakes. But, ironically, so too does our obsession with happiness.
A pretty substantial pile of psychological research shows that actively pursuing happiness as a goal simply makes us more aware of all the ways we're falling short. Chase happiness, in other words, and it tends to run away. Or as Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, hilariously put it on Vox: "Like an attractive man, it seems the more actively happiness is pursued, the more it refuses to call and starts avoiding you at parties."
Like Sachs, Whippman believes that "there are many reasons why life in America is likely to produce anxiety compared with other developed nations: long working hours without paid vacation time for many, insecure employment conditions with little legal protection for workers, inequality, and the lack of universal health care coverage, to name a few," but she stresses that our "happiness-seeking culture" is also part of the problem.
And handily, while you probably can't get Congress to strengthen social programs anytime soon, you can choose to step off the happiness treadmill and stop making yourself crazier by worrying if you're happy enough.