The United States leads the world in gross domestic product, number of billionaires and Olympic gold medals, but it’s lagging behind in something really important: happiness.
The U.S. is the world's 17th happiest nation, scoring below many other developed countries, according to the second edition of the World Happiness Report released Monday by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
The report said that Americans were less happy in 2012 than they were the year before, and suggests that spiritual values are as important in determining a nation’s overall happiness as more tangible factors such as gross domestic product and personal wealth.
Its authors say a lack of focus on the less-common measures of a successful life -- like spending time with family and giving to others -- could explain why the United States is slipping in the rankings, while other countries that have focused more on curbing corruption, fostering social support of vulnerable citizens and achieving strong work-life balances are climbing their way up the satisfaction ladder.
"The most important underlying message [of the report] is to change the way people think," said John Helliwell, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia and co-editor of the report. "We need to focus more on the quality of life and less on GDP."
The authors of the report relied on Gallup polls conducted in 150 countries to create their happiness rankings.
The five happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. That’s because, according to the report, corruption levels are low, people feel free to live as they please and the GDP is high in these nations.
"Scandinavia has ranked at the top just about every time people have looked at [happiness]," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and one of the lead researchers of the report. "These are prosperous societies, but they’re not just driven by making money. They have very good health, a good balance for families, good social support systems, and corruption is very low."
That's a stark contrast to the least happy societies, which tend to be rife with political conflict, corruption and economic hardship.
The least happy country in the world is Togo, followed closely behind by several other North and Central African nations. Given the news of the last few months, it’s probably no surprise that Syria and much of the Middle East also rank near the bottom of the list.
But from Togo to Denmark, despite the wide range of cultures surveyed, researchers found that just six factors account for 75 percent of the variation of any nation's happiness from year to year: GDP, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on (social support), perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.
Because the United States and similar industrialized countries outside of the struggling eurozone maintained relatively strong economies in the last year, the report suggests that our declining happiness must be linked to the other factors.
"Material support for life is overshadowed by other factors like time spent with families and friends," said John Helliwell. "Even people who make rude gestures in traffic not only make the other person unhappy, they make themselves unhappy."
According to Helliwell, those small gestures can eventually lead to an entire nation becoming less satisfied with life.
Of course, one person refraining from yelling at a driver can’t make the entire world a better place immediately. But Helliwell and his co-reseachers point out that the broad categories that improve quality of life in a country -- like lack of corruption or increased social support -- are just compilations of individual actions.
"Social support is just helping your neighbor; Corruption is really an extension of trust,” Helliwell said. "It all hangs together."
The United States could improve significantly in these categories, the researchers said. But for at least a few U.S. residents, the country seems to doing just fine in 17th place. It’s not in first place, but it’s not Togo either.
"Our economy isn't in the toilet and unemployment is low," said Shelly See, a 54-year-old art director in New York City. "So I’m just as happy as last year."