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The U.S. Ranks Low In The 2013 World Happiness Report. Why?

Happiness an important measure of people's well being

Political and business leaders throughout the world, but particularly in North America, have used economic measures to determine the nature of country’s progress and its people’s well being. Increasingly, those measures are seen as providing an incomplete if not misleading picture. Economic equality, social programs and now even levels of happiness are being viewed as equally important.

In my Psychology Today article, “Why GDP Is Not A Good Measure Of A Nation’s Well-Being,”  I argued “Since the institution of GDP figures and country rankings, other measures of the quality of life have appeared. For example, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) annually issues a report based on a study of 140 countries, indicating the levels of happiness in those countries. For at least the last decade, European countries such as Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands and other countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand have ranked at the top and the U.S. has not made the top 10.”

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In July 2011 the UN General Assembly passed a historic resolution. It invited member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies. This was followed in April 2012 by the first UN high-level meeting on happiness and well-being, chaired by the Prime Minister of Bhutan. At the same time the first World Happiness Report was published, followed some months later by the OECD Guidelines setting an international standard for the measurement of well-being.

Now a new report, World Happiness Report 2013, edited by respected experts John F. Helliwell of the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia and Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Richard Layard, Director of Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Elements of happiness measurements included such things as GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and positive and negative effects. In a ranking of various measures of happiness in 156 countries, the top 10 again included Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Australia. The U.S. was ranked 17th.

Among the significant conclusions of the report were:

  • Respondents to surveys clearly recognized the difference between happiness as an emotion and happiness in the sense of life satisfaction;
  • Mental illness is the single most important cause of unhappiness, but is largely ignored by policy makers;
  • An individual’s values and character are major determinants of the individual’s happiness with life as a whole;
  • Improvements in quality of life have been particularly notable in Latin American and the Caribbean, while reductions have been the norm in the regions most affected by the financial crisis, in Western Europe and other western industrial countries;
  • People who are emotionally happier, who have more satisfying lives, and who live in happier communities, are more likely both now and later to be healthy, productive and socially connected. These benefits in turn flow more broadly to their families, workplaces and communities, to the advantage of all;
  • A return to “virtue ethics” is one part of the strategy to raise (evaluative) happiness in society;
  • A well-being approach by political and business leaders leads to better policies and a better policy process;
  • There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their lives;
  • More and more world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and British Prime Minister David Cameron, are talking about the importance of well-being as a guide for their nations and the world;
  • The systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us much about ways to improve the world’s well-being and sustainable development.

Perhaps it’s time that our political and business leaders consider that the well-being and happiness of people are important measures of our progress that need to be considered as being just as important as traditional measures of economic output.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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