What America can learn from the world's happiest countries
Turns out free health care, vacations, and low inequality make a nice place to live
Item: The life expectancy of the United States was recently found to have declined for the third straight year, something typically associated with all-out war, economic crises, or political collapse. According to the CIA, as of 2017 the U.S. ranks 42nd among nations for life expectancy, behind Malta and Greece.
Item: The annual United Nations report on the world's happiest nations was released Wednesday, where the U.S. fell from 18th to 19th place. Meanwhile, the happiest country for the second straight year was Finland. Filling out the rest of the top 5 were Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands.
This raises the question: What might the U.S. learn from the world happiness grandmasters? A good place to start would be copy-pasting their economic and social welfare institutions.
On first blush, there are some obvious big differences that almost certainly explain much of the difference. All these nations have extensive welfare states, with universal health care, generous benefits for parents, seniors, disabled people, the unemployed, and so on. If someone in Finland has an accident or run of bad luck, the state will catch them — and it will also help new parents out with the enormous expenses of child-rearing. That means both a better life for people who have kids, lose their job, or get sick, plus lower stress for everyone else who knows society will protect them from misfortune. But in the U.S., with its grossly dysfunctional health-care system and tattered safety net, such events can be personally devastating. For instance, children cause fully 36 percent of U.S. poverty, and some 42 percent of American cancer patients lose their entire life savings after diagnosis.
Anu Partenen testifies that when she moved from Finland to America, she quickly started having panic attacks over health insurance worries.
Citizens of the Nordic states also work far less than Americans. If Americans cut their hours-worked figure down to the levels of Denmark or Norway, that would mean over two additional months of vacation (again associated with happiness) every year.
Additionally, a proper welfare state means all these countries have very low poverty rates. All the top five are in the bottom seven of the OECD poverty rankings, while the U.S. has the third-highest poverty rate among those countries (behind South Africa and Costa Rica). Poverty is both soul-crushing and physically harmful, and certainly drags down the U.S. happiness average.
That in turn raises the issue of general economic inequality. The U.S. has the sixth-highest inequality in the OECD, while Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark have the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh-lowest respectively. That means the top of the U.S. income distribution is very far from the bottom — which again unlike Finland, can easily mean utter destitution.
Inequality creates a sort of social vertigo that harms even people doing quite well. It's surely part of why many middle- and upper-middle class American parents work feverishly to obtain every possible advantage for their children, including sometimes creating vast cheating conspiracies to rig the college admissions process. The consequences of falling even a few steps down the American economic ladder can be catastrophic — but far less so in Finland, where the lowest-paid workers aren't that far from the top-paid ones, and even with a crummy job (or none at all) one still has health care. When most people make fairly similar salaries, there is no need for neurotic "snowplow parenting" — and more room for people to work at what they find fulfilling or enjoyable instead of what pays most.
In another chapter of the happiness report, Jean M. Twenge (author of the techno-phobic iGen) presents some evidence that the rise of the internet, smartphones, and social media may be sapping American happiness, which has declined markedly since the 1970s. There is probably something to this, but on the other hand all the happiest countries also have phones and the internet.
The obvious common-sense reaction to the happiness divergence between the Nordic countries and the U.S. is surely the right one. A highly unequal society with threadbare benefits and extreme negative consequences for bad luck makes its residents unhappy. But one with all sorts of really nice universal goodies, tons of vacation, and low inequality is a nice place to live, and its residents are happier.