In a month of momentous events, March also marked the release of the Seventh Annual World Happiness report. With each passing year, this report has highlighted a world increasingly driven by cultural concerns as well as economic needs.

In the first report (2012), the U.S. entered at number 11 – its highest ranking ever. In the Seventh Annual Report (2018) the U.S. joins 155 countries whose governments, organizations and civil societies are increasingly using happiness indicators to inform their policy-making decisions.

The Report’s winners have consistently included the Nordic nations. This year Finland took the top spot from those nations (Denmark, Norway, and Iceland) and found the U.S. dropping back five spots from 13 in 2017, to 18 in 2018.

Different Mindsets

The top ten nations on this list – Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia – share a different set of priorities.

  • Each nation prioritizes cultural concerns such as social cohesion, a strong safety net, and universal healthcare as important (or more important) as GDP or economic measures.
  • Each nation has learned to transform limited economic wealth into maximum individual wellness and is willing to use government to achieve these ends.

These lessons accept that government has a role in the well-being of society – discarding old tropes about individual ruggedness or the bootstrap myths that leave “every man for himself.”

Policy plays a key role in establishing conditions for wellness, well-being, or happiness. This view of life in Denmark (short video clip) reveals the roots of happiness in the culture and public space.

In America, we emphasize economic drivers. We focus on GDP, tax breaks, trade policy, and financial deregulation – to define “success” — at the expense of social cohesion.

The Happiness Report, however, includes a fuller view of life and satisfaction. It embraces 1) income, 2) life expectancy, 3) having someone to count on in times of trouble, 4) generosity, 5) freedom and trust, as measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.

By this measure, America ranks 18!

The Easterlin Paradox

In a way, America suffers both from incredible economic success, and its single-minded focus on economics as the only definition of success. As such, we are blind to any possibilities and policies beyond economic goals.

In the mid-70s, the economist Richard Easterlin showed that despite a steadily growing American economy over the previous decades, the average happiness had remained almost unaltered. The ‘Easterlin Paradox’ suggests that there is no link between the level of economic development of a society and the overall happiness of the citizens. Life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. Beyond that, the gain in happiness goes down.

Another attribute of this effect is the relative versus absolute economic growth in wealth. People whose income has steadily increased can still become unhappy if such increases are relatively anemic compared to those at the top.

In other words, if I continue to make more but have fewer healthcare options or opportunity, then I experience the diminishing returns of any increase in income.

Economic inequality drives much of America’s slippage: a select few do well, as others suffer from lacking social cohesion.

Happiness lives beyond Materialism

The Happiness Report reveals an important truth, as stated by University of British Columbia economist, John Helliwell: “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, what is it worth?” Helliwell shares a now-familiar refrain: “the material can stand in the way of the human.”

From an article in the Guardian: Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, seemed amazed that Finland is the top scorer:

“GDP per capita in Finland is lower than its neighboring Nordic countries and is much lower than that of the US. The Finns are good at converting wealth into wellbeing.

“In the Nordic countries in general, we pay some of the highest taxes in the world, but there is wide public support for that because people see them as investments in quality of life for all. Free healthcare and university education goes a long way when it comes to happiness.”

The top ten nations all scored highest in these cultural, non-economic, categories. Indeed, the report adopts a definition of subjective well-being that encompasses three elements:

  • Life evaluation: a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it.
  • Affect: a person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured concerning a particular point in time.
  • Eudaimonia: a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning.

Additionally, these nations all leverage economic benefit to better their people. For instance, consider that Norway (#2) maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but despite it. Oil prices remain weak in Norway, but by choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies.

America’s Unhappy Trifecta 

For the second year, the Happiness Report has a chapter (7) focusing on America’s decline. It identifies three interrelated issues that lack sufficient public policy: Obesity, Opioid Crises (and drug overdose in general) and Depression.

These issues not only emerge in the face of anemic public policy and feckless government responses, they also are met with healthcare philosophy at odds with the top ten nations: In America, healthcare remains a privilege, not a right.

Take these nuggets from the Report:

  • Between 1938 and 2007 studies show a cultural drift in psychopathology toward extrinsic goals such as materialism and status, away from intrinsic goals such as community, meaning in life and affiliation.
  • The U.S. tops the world in purchase and consumption of sugar in processed and packaged foods and beverages. It averages 126 grams/day compared to a global average of 34 grams/day.
  • Since the 1970s, the U.S. has promoted corn production to lower the costs of producing high-fructose corn syrup as a major food additive.
  • There’s now evidence that suicide rates between 2010 and 2015 have risen in adolescence and are correlated with the use of new screen technologies such as the smartphone, video games, and social media. New screen-technology behaviors can create feelings of loneliness, isolation, and alienation rather than encourage interpersonal interactions.
  • Video games seem to have six attributes linked to addictions: Salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse.

Where’s the Leadership?

Finally, the notion of happiness – well-being or wellness – ought to be of concern for business and leadership!

Our government, such as it is today, tends to react to public pressure. Whether regulating social media, managing climate change, developing energy solutions, or upgrading our healthcare system, businesses, and social movements can impact change.

Moreover, the human cost outlined in this Happiness Report will take its toll on business. Either through increased costs of healthcare, living wages or demands such as family leave; or, through highly organized boycotts against products, corporate practices and cultural policies that no longer serve our national well-being.

This all comes down to leadership. The political process in America is broken and must be prodded – often shoved — to do the right thing. Leadership in business, education and community-based organizations must demand new cultural norms and satisfaction with sustainable practices and policies.

We are also experiencing a cultural divide in our expectation of leadership, wellness, and what it means to be whole. Researcher and thinker Otto Scharmer from his newly released book, The Essentials of Theory U, observes that:

“What is dying and disintegrating is a world of Me First, bigger is better, and special, interest-group decision making that has led us into a state of organized irresponsibility. What is being born … has to do with shifting our consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness – an awareness that attends to the well-being of all.”

In other words, our definition of success using economic indicators is coming up against cultural values that require much more attention and awareness.

As stated in the final chapter on America in the Happiness Report: The challenge of well-being is a matter both of high politics and economics and the sum of individual and community-based efforts.


tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and contemplative practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism and contemplative practices.