Why Americans are unhappier than ever – and how to fix it – George Ward

George Ward, MIT Sloan PhD student

From The Conversation

March 20 is International Day of Happiness and, as they’ve done every year, the United Nations has published the World Happiness Report. The U.S. ranks 18th among the world’s countries, with an average life satisfaction of around 6.88 on a scale of 10.

While that may be relatively near the top, America’s happiness figures have actually declined every year since the reports began in 2012, and this year’s are the lowest yet. The question, then, is whether the government has a role to play in improving the happiness of its citizens. And if so, how might policymakers go about it?

Fortunately, a growing body of work by economists and psychologists can give governments access to the kind of data that can inform the way they think about policy and happiness.

In our new book, “The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being Over the Life Course,” my colleagues and I provide a systematic account of what makes for a satisfying life.

The role of government

The idea that government ought to focus attention on the well-being of its citizens goes back centuries. Thomas Jefferson himself said, “The care of human life and happiness … is the only legitimate object of good government.”

Historically, this has meant increasing economic productivity and growth to increase personal happiness. But as the data suggest, and many countries are beginning to realize, this isn’t likely to be sufficient. As a result, many governments around the world are now taking steps to broaden their policy goals beyond GDP.

This is not just a question of leaders being benevolent. Electoral data suggests that governments of populations that are unhappy do not tend to stay in power very long.

But how can governments change the way their citizens feel? Ultimately, changes cannot be made without good data. If governments are going to use well-being as a serious measure of success and progress, they need solid evidence of what lies behind people’s happiness and misery.

To make rational decisions about where to spend finite public funds, they need to know how potential policy changes will affect people’s well-being – and at what cost. Without these numbers, governments risk looking for happiness in all the wrong places.

Causes of happiness and misery

For “The Origins of Happiness,” my colleagues and I analyzed a large amount of survey data from around the developed world in order to document what determines life satisfaction over the life course.

Read the full post at The Conversation

George Ward is a behavioral scientist and a PhD student at MIT Sloan School of Management.

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