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Where does the US fall on the World Happiness Report?

The 2015 World Happiness Report ranks Switzerland as the happiest country in the world. Should the US base public policy on the happiness and well-being of its citizens?

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And the happiest country in the world is … Switzerland!

The 2015 World Happiness Report, released Thursday by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, aims to compare the subjective happiness of countries around the world for the third time. Increasingly, countries around the world have focused on happiness data, resulting in policy-making designed to improve citizens' lives.

So, how did the US fare?

Once again the US failed to make it into the top ten “happiest” countries in the report. For the first time, Switzerland ranked number one, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Canada, respectively. The report looks at a variety of factors polled by Gallup International to report on a country’s happiness, including economic standing, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make decisions, perception of corruption, and generosity.

The report argues that by looking at what makes people happy, government policies can aim to improve the emotional well-being of constituents.

“Increasingly happiness is considered a proper measure of social progress and goal of public policy,” the report reads. “Governments are measuring subjective well-being, and using well-being research as a guide to the design of public spaces and the delivery of public services.”

This year, the US ranked 15th for overall happiness. This is two spots higher than in the previous report, but still falls short of its 11th place spot in 2012. Some analysts argue that one of the reasons the US continues to hover below the top ten is because of the country’s focus on GDP, a measure of monetary value of productivity, rather than social cohesion and trust. Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Earth Institute at Columbia University, argues that with money running the presidential races and CEOs being revered in spite of their lack of integrity, it is no wonder the US struggles to find overall happiness in its current society.

“Life satisfaction depends on strong social support networks, on generosity and voluntarism, on ‘generalized trust’ among strangers in the society, and on the trust in government,” Mr. Sachs wrote in the Huffington Post. “Our society increasingly values people and their behavior according to their wealth, not to their integrity … Can there be any doubt why trust is down in the US?”

Some American cities are taking steps to address the happiness of their residents, however. Somerville, Mass., a suburb of Boston, recently undertook a “Happiness Project,” in which it surveyed residents to learn about their general well-being. The report revealed that a majority of respondents rated themselves over seven on a one-to-10 scale of happiness. They also said that the physical appearance and beauty of the city and parks, the effectiveness of police, and public schools were among the factors that impacted their happiness the most.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone explained on the city’s website:

It may seem odd for a city government to ask people how happy they are … Yet what is the purpose of government if not to enhance the well-being of the public? We are public servants and we should be focused on making your life better. Our orienting values in Somerville are that we should be a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. The happiness survey is a way for us to get hard data on how well we are delivering on those values.

In September, the city of Santa Monica won a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge to study happiness throughout the city. They beat out 300 other US cities to receive the grant, which will now be used to look at what makes its 92,000 residents happy and how to implement changes to increase their happiness level.

Perhaps the World Happiness Report will help spur more policies that will reflect what is truly important to citizens. The UN also plans to adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September to encourage a holistic approach to policy goals.

The key? Balance. The report reads:

Sustainable development is a normative concept, calling for all societies to balance economic, social, and environmental objectives … The SDGs are designed to help countries to achieve economic, social, and environmental objectives in harmony, thereby leading to higher levels of well-being for the present and future generations.

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