If you're happy and you know it, the United Nations knows why.
Ahead of the International Day of Happiness on March 20, the U.N. just published its 2016 World Happiness Report, complete with insights into how the most cheerful countries got that way.
Of the 157 countries listed in the report, the U.S. ranks 13th -- with a score of 7.104 on a 10-point scale. By comparison, the happiest country, Denmark, scored a 7.526, and the least happy country, Burundi, scored a 2.905.
That means Americans are not exactly unhappy, but there's room for improvement. Here's what the 12 happier countries are doing that we can do, too.
Broadly speaking, the report found the largest single contributor to happiness is a country's per-capita gross domestic product, which, on average, accounts for around 31 percent of the total. That's followed by social support (26 percent), healthy life expectancy (18 percent), freedom to make life choices (12 percent), generosity (8 percent), and the absence of corruption (5 percent).
“The U.S. mostly leaves the poor to fend for themselves. Not so in the happiest countries.”
On per-capita GDP, the U.S. outranks most of the countries in the top 10 (less than Norway, roughly tied with Switzerland). But it lags behind in almost every other category.
When a country focuses primarily on just one aspect of wellbeing, that tends to have a harmful effect on people's broader sense of happiness. As an example, Qatar has a significantly higher per-capita GDP than the U.S., yet ranks 36th in happiness.
"When countries single-mindedly pursue individual objectives, such as economic development to the neglect of social and environmental objectives, the results can be highly adverse for human well-being, even dangerous for survival," the U.N. report states. "Many countries in recent years have achieved economic growth at the cost of sharply rising inequality, entrenched social exclusion, and grave damage to the natural environment."
That suggests the U.S. would do well to build up its social support systems, the second biggest contributor to happiness. A stronger social safety net could also lead to improvements in other categories in which America falls short -- like healthy life expectancy, generosity and freedom to make decisions.
Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a co-author of the report, explains:
The top countries, especially the Nordic countries, have much lower inequality than in the United States, and much greater social insurance. The U.S. mostly leaves the poor to fend for themselves. Not so in the happiest countries. They possess what is called the "social democratic" ethos: that society should look after each other, and especially the least well-off. The top countries don't accept that their CEOs walk away with tens of millions of dollars of annual compensation while the shop floor worker experiences declines in real purchasing power.
The report doesn't dig into specific policies, but some U.S. politicians argue that America should emulate certain aspects of Denmark's social programs. In a 2013 Huffington Post blog, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) highlighted as particularly laudable programs that increase access to health care, child care and education, protect the unemployed and greatly expand paid time off for new parents.
Conversely, the authors of the 2016 report found that some countries with strong social safety nets remained quite happy even in times of financial hardship. In Iceland and Ireland, for example, the social fabric was strong enough to support feelings of general wellbeing despite the deep economic meltdown beginning in 2007-2008.
"Both suffered decimation of their banking systems as extreme as anywhere, and yet have suffered incommensurately small happiness losses," the report notes. "In the Icelandic case, the post-shock recovery in life evaluations has been great enough to put Iceland third in the global rankings for 2013-2015. ... [T]he percentage of people who report that they have someone to count on in times of crisis is exceptionally high in Iceland and Ireland."
In other words, economic growth is important, so long as it doesn't come at the expense of social wellbeing, which acts as a cushion in times of economic strife.
Or as Thomas Jefferson put it, "The care of human life and happiness ... is the only legitimate object of good government."