The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are the unhappiest they’ve ever been, U.N. report finds. An ‘epidemic of addictions’ could be to blame.


Moments after Jimmy Kimmel walked onto the set of his late-night show, he noted that Wednesday was a special day.

“Today is the happiest day of the year,” Kimmel said.

That may be true for Finland, which for the second consecutive year was crowned the happiest country in the world by the World Happiness Report, released Wednesday in conjunction with the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness.

But for the United States, not so much.

Americans are unhappy, according to the report, an annual list ranking the overall happiness levels of 156 countries — and it’s only getting worse.

For the third year in a row, the U.S. has dropped in the ranking and now sits at No. 19, one spot lower than last year, according to the report produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative. The top three spots this year were occupied by Finland, Denmark and Norway. At the bottom were Afghanistan, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

Perhaps tired of winning, the United States falls in World Happiness rankings — again

The report bases its ranking on six key variables: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption.

The United States’ current rank marks its worst showing since the report was first released in 2012. The country has never cracked the top 10, The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang reported in 2017.

“We finished 19th on the list behind Belgium,” Kimmel quipped on ABC. “The people who feel the need to put mayonnaise on their french fries are happier than we are. Cheer up, everybody.”

Unfortunately for Americans, the solution isn’t that simple.

“By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than ever,” writes Jean M. Twenge, one of the report’s co-authors. “The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades.”

However, as evidenced by the U.S.'s downward trend, just because the standard of living improves doesn’t mean happiness follows.

New Zealand is one of the world’s happiest countries. That also makes it resilient.

Researchers posit the country’s declining happiness is likely due to an “epidemic of addictions,” which includes everything from substance abuse and gambling to social media usage and risky sexual behaviors.

“This year’s report provides sobering evidence of how addictions are causing considerable unhappiness and depression in the US,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a co-author of the report, said in a news release. “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.”

In the report, Sachs describes the U.S. as “a mass-addiction society.”

According to Sachs, there are a number of distressing trends plaguing the country that stem from addictive behaviors, such as the ongoing opioid crisis, a staggeringly high obesity rate and an increasing rate of adolescent depression, among others.

“The prevalence of addictions in U.S. society seems to be on the rise, perhaps dramatically,” Sachs wrote in the report.

Another factor that may contribute to lower happiness levels is the increasing amount of time people, especially adolescents, are spending absorbed in their electronic devices, the report said.

By 2017, the average 17- or 18-year-old spent more than six hours a day of leisure time on the Internet, social media and texting, activities that have been linked to increases in depression, Twenge wrote. Studies cited by Twenge showed that as screen time increased, people became less inclined to engage in face-to-face interactions such as getting together with their friends or going to parties. There was also a decline in other non-screen-related activities, such as reading and sleeping, according to the report.

“In short, adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and adolescents who spend more time on most other activities are happier,” Twenge wrote. “Digital media may have an indirect effect on happiness as it displaces time that could be otherwise spent on more beneficial activities.”

The report’s findings provide governments and their citizens with an opportunity to “rethink public policies as well as individual life choices, to raise happiness and wellbeing,” Sachs said in the release.

“We keep chasing economic growth as the holy grail, but it’s not bringing well-being for our country,” he told HuffPost. “We should … stop our addiction to GDP growth as our sole or primary indicator of how we’re doing.”

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