A World Happiness Report Creator Explains Why the US Can't Crack the Top 10

“The US very much needs happiness science."

On Thursday, Americans woke up to the startling findings of the World Happiness Report. For the seventh year running, the US still hasn’t cracked the top ten. Fortunately, the authors of the report believe there’s a solution. America, they say, must learn to embrace “happiness science.”

In the 2019 edition of the World Happiness Report, released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations, the US dropped to 19th place, the lowest it have ever ranked since the report debuted in 2012. Topping the list, for the second year in a row was Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

Seeing the US barely crack the top 20 is a bit depressing, but Jeffrey Sachs, Ph.D., a co-author on the report, tells Inverse that the goal of the analysis is far greater than just creating a ranking of happy and unhappy nations.

“This World Happiness Report is part of a global effort that we have been undertaking since 2010 to bring the science and policy of happiness to the global community,” he says.

Sachs, a senior adviser to the UN, says that the report has sparked a wider debate about happiness around the world. It all started in 2011 at a meeting in Bhutan, a nation with a unique happiness policy that inspired Sachs to put an actual number on global happiness.

How Bhutan’s Happiness Index Inspired the WHR

Since the 70s, Bhutan has promoted the idea of a Gross National Happiness Index, a statistic to quantify happiness in a country. It has since become famous for its GNH index, computed using the results from hundreds of survey questions answered by the population.

world happiness
The creators of the World Happiness Report were inspired by Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index

Bhutan still ranks low (95th) in the World Happiness Report. But the idea of putting happiness in the forefront of government inspired Sachs and his future WHR co-authors, Canadian cconomist John Helliwell, Ph.D., and Richard Layard, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the London School of Economics. During a conference in 2011, they met with Jigme Thinley, who was Bhutan’s Prime Minister at the time. Thinley had addressed the UN earlier that year, arguing that the UN should make happiness one of their millennium development goals.

“We were standing at his desk in his office when I broached the idea of a global happiness report, and I would attribute the idea to Thinley’s leadership and the compelling scientific findings of Professors Helliwell and Layard and others,” Sachs says. “I was and am inspired by Bhutan’s insight into Gross National Happiness and in the former PM Thinley’s leadership in explaining its importance.”

Since then, Sachs believes that putting a number on happiness has helped governments get their heads around it. In 2013, the UN recognized March 20th as its “International Day of Happiness.” Some countries seem to have taken up the mantle of happiness pursuit too, but they don’t seem to fare too well in the WHR. In 2014, for example, Nigeria (which ranks 85th) created a Supervisory Commissioner for Happiness and Purpose Fulfillment. In 2016, the United Arab Emirates (which ranks 21st) appointed a Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing.

The problem is that a government can’t just appoint a Minister of Happiness and call it a day. It’s important to figure out why people are unhappy to start with, which is where “happiness science” comes in.

“The US very much needs happiness science for the reasons that I’ve been writing in the World Happiness Report since the first edition in 2012,” Sachs says. “In the US, GDP per capita has roughly tripled since 1960, but average happiness has not increased, and perhaps has decreased. We therefore need metrics and guideposts that are more relevant for what we really seek: well-being.”

Happiness Policy and Happiness Science

In every WHR, Sachs and his co-authors highlight areas of scientific research they believe are key to improving happiness. The “happiness science” they highlight this year focuses on mental and physical health — especially for the U.S. The report devotes an entire chapter to the impacts of digital media on rising rates of teen mood disorders.

upset, depressed
The US ranks 19th in the World Happiness Report for 2019

Sachs himself writes an chapter on the role of addictions. As examples, he lists opioids, which for decades were deliberately pushed by pharmaceutical companies. He also notes the large role that beverage and food companies have been allowed to play in shaping policy. For instance, soda companies have been permitted to halt the implementation of certain sugar-based taxes, yet more and more research shows that sugar beverages carry significant public health threats.

Sachs writes passionately in the report, arguing that policymakers focus on profits as opposed to the results of “happiness science”. That, he says, is really what has kept the US out of the top ten for so long.

“We need to put happiness measures into our public policy discussions and policy aims,” he says. “For all of the time we spend on whether GDP will increase by 3.1% or 2.7% this year, we need to discuss much more America’s falling life expectancy, declining happiness in the past 15 years, falling trust in society, falling trust in the honesty of government – and then use the data and the scientific findings around happiness and wellbeing to promote improved public policies.”

Since 2012, Sachs and his co-authors have created an incentive with their ranking, but they’re also looking to reorganize what our goals are when we develop policy. In other words, closing the gap between research showing how we can improve well-being, and the policies that actually affect people’s lives, is the real aim of the Happiness Report.

Maybe it just takes missing out on the top ten year after year to make it happen.