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Why is the US so unhappy?

Perhaps it’s too much democracy, human rights and freedom. More likely, it’s too less of those things and way too much worries and troubles such as a lack of financial security, too much crime, not enough health care, and deficiencies in other indices of well-being. A common way to measure happiness and well-being is the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation. In 2006, the organization found that the US scored a disappointing 150 out of 178 countries (between Lithuania and Côte d’Ivoire). In 2009, it found that it was ranked 114 out of 143 (between Madagascar and Nigeria). As a reference, China was 31st and 20th respectively.

But like Chinese opinions of their government, Chinese well-being will likely not be considered into the debate as to China’s development. It’s what westerners want for China that really matters.


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  1. jxie
    April 12th, 2012 at 18:58 | #1

    If you look closely at their methodology, they squeeze in a negating factor called Ecological Footprint (EF), i.e. the higher one’s Ecological Footprint is, the lower his happiness is. By that, it seems to me that the index is not unlike Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index, or Freedom House’s Index of Freedom — more about the political messages than anything actually useful.

    If just go by survey (“how happy are you?”) alone, the US is quite a happy lot at 7.9. Most East Asia countries/areas bundle together: Hong Kong, 7.2; Singapore, 7.1; Japan, 6.8; China, 6.7; Malaysia, 6.6; Vietnam, 6.5; Korea, 6.3; Thailand, 6.3 (a bit surprisingly low). The world average is at 5.92 BTW. The amazing fact is Costa Rica, with a nominal GDP at $8500, is still the happiest country on earth.

  2. Joyce Lau
    April 14th, 2012 at 21:34 | #2

    Happiness is relative to what your expectations are.
    I grew up in a small U.S. town in the 80s. Even though we were not rich by American standards, we had a house, a yard, a car, good free schooling, fresh air, friendly neighbors — everything my dad called the “American dream.”

    When my Hong Kong cousins saw a photo of our house, they presumed we were rich — because, for someone growing up in a cramped flat, a house was a sign of affluence. Whereas, in America, a suburban 3-bedroom with a single driveway is pretty ordinary. My cousins didn’t believe us when we said we went to public school, wore hand-me-down clothes and had part-time babysitting jobs.

    Take the comparison even further. When I was a kid, my parents befriended a mainland immigrant family. For them, everything about America seemed plated in gold, even things we took for granted — like a supermarket. (I remember being amazed when “uncle” kept photographing the cereal aisle, since it seemed so ordinary to me). They had come from the impoverished countryside.

    If you asked a teenaged me if I was happy, I probably would have shrugged like most American kids and said “Yeah, I’m pretty happy, but I wish I didn’t have to share a bike with my brother. I give my life a 5 out of 10.” If you asked the daughter of the new immigrants, who had never seen such “riches,” she probably would have given American life a 10 out of 10.

    Americans, who have had a comfortable life for generations, are now suffering compared to how they were before. A family with 2 cars might have to go down to 1. Dad might have to take a second job. A family vacation might have to be cancelled.

    But a middle-aged Chinese person — someone who remembers the 80s — will consider modern life extremely good compared to a time when people didn’t even have basics. Maybe he will be thrilled with his first car, his first modern apartment, his first vacation.

    A similar study was done in HK. And it showed that the happiest people here are Filipina maids, who are among the lowest paid.

  3. April 15th, 2012 at 12:25 | #3

    @Joyce Lau

    There is some relativism with regard to happiness in the terms you spoke of, that is relative socio-economic position. But the last 20 years in positive psychology have taught us, there is also a baseline for life satisfaction and that happiness goes up linearly with income for all societies until about 70,000$ per year for households. After that there is little correlation but culture and political climate matters more.

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