In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy urged Americans to think about how we measure what makes a country great in a new way. The Gross National Product, he said, doesn’t measure the health of our children, the beauty of our poetry, our courage, our wisdom, or our compassion. “It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has taken up the cause to think bigger about how we measure what’s important, and is one of the editors of the newly released World Happiness Report. The report, which will be used by the United Nations in coming up with sustainable development goals, shows that The United States, one of the economically richest countries, comes in at #15 on the Happiness Scale. And our level of happiness has gone down since 2005. Sachs explains:

Q: Why write a report on world happiness?

Sachs: It’s motivated by a growing world-wide awareness that countries could do a much better job raising the well-being of their citizens, and that we’re measuring the wrong things, and changing the wrong things, when we overemphasize our income, as opposed to other variables of our society.

The idea came out of a meeting in Bhutan, the famed country where the King many years ago called Bhutan to pursue Gross National Happiness as opposed to Gross National Product. That is in line with a worldwide recognition that pursuing GNP isn’t getting us where we want to go.

Thirty years ago, studies found that Americans are getting richer, but they’re not getting any happier. That remains the case today. Our incomes are going up. But our well-being is not going up. It’s barely budged for 50 years.

Q: How do you know?

Sachs: It’s based on a question that people are asked around the world about their life satisfaction. The particular question we look at in this study is called The Ladder question. Imagine that life is like a ladder where the bottom rung of the ladder, 0, is the worst rung you could imagine, and the top rung, 10, is the best life you could imagine. Where is your life on that ladder? Gallup international does the survey.

We know that the answers people give are systematic and very interesting. You learn that Americans are not feeling better and better over time as their incomes rise. You learn that the United States is not the happiest place in the world by quite a ways.

You find that the happiest countries are the northern European countries – the Scandinavian countries are always at the top of the list, like Norway, Sweden, Iceland. You find out that while the average income of people around the world definitely affects their sense of well-being, it doesn’t explain all that much, because other factors, both personal and social, are very important determinants of well-being.

Q: Like what?

Sachs: On the personal side, physical and mental health are extremely important in addition to income levels. Personal values are very important. People who are more generous, who express more orientation toward others, more compassion, are also systematically reporting that they’re happier.

And people who feel they have a social support network, not surprisingly, are happier. People who believe in general that other members of their society are trustworthy are happier. And people who believe their government is honest are also happier.

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

For the 2015 report, we included a study of neurobiologists who are looking at what the brain is telling us about our state of  well-being].

Q: Is there anything people can do right here, right now, to be happier?

There’s a lot of evidence people can do things on their own to become happier. People who say they’re really led by income as their top value, or they regard their income as their main source of social status, or they’re very oriented toward consumerism, are very unhappy.

Ancient wisdom, pointed out thousands of years ago, and data is now showing, that there are things we can do to help ourselves be happier right now. They include:

Mindfulness. People who practice meditation or mindfulness training, or compassion training, really get benefits out of that.

Less commercial orientation in our lives.

Giving and volunteering can all be very, very good for our sense of well-being. We found that generosity is not only good for the receivers, but is also good for the givers. That sounds cliché, that it’s better to give than receive, but this shows up strongly in the data for happiness.

To be happy, we can do certain things on our own. But people are, like Aristotle said, social animals. And our happiness will be affected if we are in a society where people are not treating each other well, where we’re not trusting each other, where inequalities are so large.

Q: So what’s your happiness prescription for the United States?

Sachs: Americans are still relatively happy. But we’re not at the top of our game, and not at the top of the world. We should look at what other countries are doing that are outpacing us. There is a deep trend that we in America have put too much emphasis on individual income attainment, and not enough emphasis on keeping trust and faith in society and in each other, and making sure that everybody is carried along through benefits.

The places that outpace us – the Scandinavian countries – are places that put a lot of emphasis on making sure everyone is brought along. The pattern we’ve been in for a long time is that our incomes rise, but the quality of our societal trust goes down, and we end up, at best, just treading water.

We are letting our societal trust really fray under the weight of growing inequalities, widening gaps between groups in society, more corruption of our government. And this is weighing heavily on the American psyche.

A good place to start is making sure that everyone has access to what’s important: Universal health coverage. Universal education, from preschool up to university, versus this $3 trillion of debt that we’ve imposed on our younger generation. Make sure there’s good quality daycare while a mother goes off to work.

Q: Those are all highly controversial issues in the United States. 

Sachs: In other countries, they don’t call these policies hand-outs. They don’t call it redistributing income. They make sure everybody is part of society’s prosperity.

While we have this image that America is this land of great opportunity, the truth is, the places we’re talking about 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. Children born to poor families have a very, very hard time climbing out of poverty. Children born into affluence have a very, very good chance of getting through college and making it on their own.

We have less social mobility than others because the gaps in income have widened so much.

What these studies are really teaching us, is not that people are stuck and drab and living in forced uniformity, but they’re quite happy because their countries work, and their governments work. They don’t have the phenomenon of big money like we do, billionaires behind  their politicians, like we do here, the super-rich running everything behind the scenes through campaign financing.

Q: So how does a World Happiness Report tackle that?

Sachs: Robert Kennedy said we measure everything but what counts. Countries around the world are recognizing the importance of measuring well-being directly. So now, every country is going to see their numbers.

In the United States, we’re going to be looking at this, and asking, ‘Why can’t we be a little higher? Why are we stuck?’ And reflect on that. It will help us realize that the way forward is not through more income, which is often the American answer, but through better community. Better individual approaches and values.

When people see this, I think it will help to crystallize what people are feeling now, which is that something’s not right here.

Q: What about you? Are you happy?

 Sachs: I’m happy because I feel very, very lucky. Lucky in my family. Lucky in my work. And lucky in being able to contribute to a happier world with my work.

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