Finland grabbed first place in the recently released 2019 World Happiness Report, which is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network , while the United States ranked 19 out of 156 countries.
Are we really more miserable than the Fins? Actually, what the so-called World Happiness Report measures is not so much happiness of citizens but whether the country is aligned with the values of the United Nations (though the report is careful to say that the findings reflect the views of the experts writing the report than the U.N.).
Here is how the Happiness Report believes human happiness is created:
“Governments set the institutional and policy framework in which individuals, businesses and governments themselves operate,” the authors wrote. “The links between the government and happiness operate in both directions: What governments do affects happiness and, in turn, the happiness of citizens in most countries determines what kind of governments they support.”
So your happiness, you see, is contingent upon your government.
The World Happiness ranking takes into consideration, according to the report, levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.
These factors sound reasonable, but it is safe to assume that social support is heavily reliant on government programs and mandates and that freedom doesn’t exactly encompass rugged individualism.
Unhappiness among young people in the U.S. rates its own chapter. Jeane M.Twenge writes in this chapter:
This decline in happiness and mental health seems paradoxical. By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than ever. The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades. This is the Easterlin paradox: As the standard of living improves, so should happiness – but it has not.
Twenge plausibly suggests that U.S. adolescents are not spending their time in ways that make them happy:
Several credible explanations have been posited to explain the decline in happiness among adult Americans, including declines in social capital and social support (Sachs, 2017) and increases in obesity and substance abuse (Sachs, 2018). In this article, I suggest another, complementary explanation: that Americans are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time. I focus primarily on adolescents, since more thorough analyses on trends in time use have been performed for this age group. However, future analyses may find that similar trends also appear among adults.
. . .
Other activities that typically do not involve screens have also declined: Adolescents spent less time attending religious services (Twenge et al., 2015), less time reading books and magazines (Twenge et al., 2019b), and (perhaps most crucially) less time sleeping (Twenge et al., 2017). These declines are not due to time spent on homework, which has declined or stayed the same, or time spent on extracurricular activities, which has stayed about the same (Twenge & Park, 2019). The only activity adolescents have spent significantly more time on during the last decade is digital media. As Figure 5.4 demonstrates, the amount of time adolescents spend online increased at the same time that sleep and in-person social interaction declined, in tandem with a decline in general happiness.
Twenge might have developed the idea that religious services, social organizations, and family activities that provided community for earlier generations simply are not as important as they once were. When I was a kid, church, school clubs, and doing things with my family would not have left much time for social media. We had actual social lives! Given the void, is it surprising that kids turn to social media? Twenge is author of a 2017 Atlantic article headlined “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation,” so her conclusion may have been foreordained.
Another skepticism-inducing fact: Finland, the happiest country in the world, has one of the highest suicide rates. Finland’s long dark winters are said to be partly to blame. Somehow this explanation doesn’t seem to quite address a tragic problem in which personal relationships, not government, are determinants.
The happiness report doesn’t measure happiness—it measures how in sync various countries are with “experts” who write studies for the United Nations.
There is a difference.