The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Immigrants walk to a makeshift customs checkpoint in Tornio, Finland. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

President Trump has not made America happier again.

For the second consecutive year, the United States has taken a tumble in the World Happiness Report’s annual ranking of more than 150 countries, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative of the United Nations.

The 2018 report was released Wednesday, ahead of the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, and it has the United States ranked 18th.

That is down four spots from a year ago — and the United States' worst showing since the annual report was introduced in 2012. The United States has never cracked the top 10.

Finland is No. 1, edging out Norway, the 2017 champion. Denmark was third, followed by Iceland and Switzerland.

The bottom three in the 156-nation list were Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan — all of which have struggled with conflict and instability.

The State Department announced Feb. 2 a ban on exporting weapons to South Sudan, adding to pressure on President Salva Kiir to end the country's civil war. (Video: Reuters)

As immigration continues to play a major role in elections around the world, the report’s authors wanted to know how the feelings of migrants change once they arrive in their adopted homeland.

They were surprised at what the data showed.

“The most striking finding is the extent to which happiness of immigrants matches the locally born population,” John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economist who co-edited the report, told The Washington Post. “The happiest countries in the world also have the happiest immigrants in the world.”

The World Happiness Report is out and the U.S. has fallen. Sad!

Why measure happiness? Some experts say that it is a better measure of a nation’s progress and that using social well-being as a goal drives better public policy, according to the report.

The statisticians weighed six variables, according to the report: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption. The data was compiled from the Gallup World Poll, which uses a measure called the “Cantril ladder.”

People are asked to envision a ladder, with their “best possible life” being a 10 on the top rung. Their worst possible life is a 0.

Data harvested from the surveys from 2005 to 2015 suggest that immigrants find happiness — and find it quickly — in their adopted countries, Helliwell said. The three happiest countries for the foreign-born mirror findings for the native-born: Finland again takes the top spot, and Denmark and Norway swapped places to become two and three.

How migrants arrive and how welcome they are once they do can be tied to several factors, according to the report. Moderate flows of migrants were more tolerable for the native-born than big influxes of new arrivals, and unskilled immigrants tend to rattle unskilled native workers fearful of being displaced.

“The attitude of immigrants is also important — if they are to find and accept opportunities to connect with the local populations, this is better for everyone,” the report found.

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In 2017, no country fell farther on the Cantril ladder than Venezuela. Civil unrest, severe hunger and a failed economy have triggered a mass exodus described as a humanitarian crisis.

Last year, Venezuela was 82nd in the World Happiness Report. This year? 102nd.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on trucks transporting food. (Video: Reuters)

There were common threads to most of the top-ranked countries on the list. Income is the biggest factor; the GDP per capita in the top 10 nations is 30 times as high as it is in the bottom 10 countries. But Helliwell said that does not always translate to happiness among individuals. Belonging and respect in civil society also play vital roles.

“It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, is it worth it?” Helliwell asked rhetorically after last year’s report. “The material can stand in the way of the human.”

A study released on Jan. 22 shows there is a correlation between how much happiness teens feel and time spent online, including texting and social media use. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

And human beings in America have contributed to eroding happiness here in recent years, the study found.

Obesity, substance abuse (including opioid abuse) and depression offset the happiness that often comes with the kind of economic growth the United States has seen since 1972, the report said. Those factors contribute to a drop in life expectancy at birth “nearly unprecedented for a high-income country in peacetime.”

Corporate lobbying and deregulation have allowed pharmaceutical companies to drown the country in opioids, and high medical costs curb the ability for many people to seek treatment for depression, the report said.

But more issues are at work in the United States.

“Social support networks in the U.S. have weakened over time; perceptions of corruption in government and business have risen over time; and confidence in public institutions has waned,” the report said.

Helliwell said happier countries tend to spend more time thinking about extending advantages to future generations. For instance, Norway has conserved its vast oil reserves and has invested revenue, he said, insulating the economy from erratic energy prices, which contributed to Venezuela’s instability.

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“To do this successfully requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway and other top countries where they are in the happiness rankings,” the report found last year.

If the United States and other countries want positive examples, they should look to Latin America, the report suggests.

The region is beset by lower confidence in institutions, vast income disparities and some of the world’s most violent cities because of the global drug trade.

And yet ...

“High happiness in Latin America is neither an anomaly nor an oddity,” the report says. “It is explained by the abundance of family warmth and other supportive social relationships frequently sidelined in favor of an emphasis on income. ... Relationships are important for people’s happiness; and ... positive relationships are abundant in Latin America.”

Last year's World Happiness Report included a chapter called “Restoring American Happiness.”

The author of that chapter, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, said America’s declining happiness is “a social crisis, not an economic crisis,” writing: “This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy. Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naive attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed.”

Sachs told Reuters that Trump’s policies would only make things worse.

This year, as the report shifted its social focus to immigrants and Latin America, Sachs turned his attention to the health epidemic in the United States.

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.

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