The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that the United States has the highest rate of household wealth in the developed world. However, our nation fails to make the list of the top ten “happiest” nations, even though economic prosperity is generally a strong factor in people’s reports of life satisfaction. Various global surveys of national well-being place us at twelfth or sixteenth and even as low as twenty-sixth on national happiness and well-being scales.
For example, people in Denmark, which is ranked first on the global happiness scale, have the most leisure time (including sleep) per day—sixteen hours as compared to fourteen in the United States. So two hours of extra free time a day seems to make a bigger difference than greater wealth. They also have high employment and a very low percentage of citizens who work over fifty hours a week—roughly 2 percent compared to about 11 percent in the United States. Second on the list, Norway, spends more on health care for each citizen than all other surveyed nations. In the third-ranked Netherlands, people report high levels of good health and longer life expectancy. The Swiss are happy about very high rates of employment. Austrians are happy about their high rates of disposable income.
The majority of Israelis, even though surrounded by hostile nations, feel safer walking home at night than do Americans. Sixth on the list, Finland, like Denmark, boasts a very low percentage of employees working more than fifty hours per week. Australians are healthier than Americans, enjoying a life expectancy about three years longer than US citizens. Canadians have much higher rates of high school graduation than students in the United States. Subsequently, they have higher employment rates as well. And Sweden, tenth on the list of happy nations, reports greater leisure time as one of its citizens’ claims to well-being.
Beyond wealth, it is health and longevity, strong social support networks, long-term employment and job stability, health and physical well-being, sufficient leisure time (shorter working hours), mental health, educational attainment, and physical safety that seem to contribute to high levels of national happiness. The United States ranks lower in most all these factors. Our average life expectancy, in particular, is lower than all the above and most other wealthy nations as well. This is due largely to our extreme levels of gun violence and high infant mortality compared to other affluent countries. Americans have also become some of the most time-impoverished people in the world. Our affluence has not brought a corresponding amount of leisure time. Compared to other industrial nations where longer vacations and shorter workweeks are the norm, what Americans regret most on many happiness surveys is lack of free time to spend with their loved ones.
According to research by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, overall levels of happiness do not appear to increase as countries grow wealthier over time, either. He also finds little connection between average per capita gross domestic product and happiness once the populations of formerly poor countries achieve a certain basic level of income. It seems that nations recapitulate the findings about individuals and families. Once minimal standards of comfort and safety are covered, happiness does not increase proportionately with wealth. In the aforementioned The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, Carol Graham relates similar findings in her studies of happiness around the world. She notes that wealthier nations generally tend to be somewhat happier, but only up to a point. Then it is the quality of relationships, stability, and the nature of the culture itself that is the greater determinant of happiness, not more Money.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of the recent book: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.