Is happiness what we really want to talk about?

By Renata Hill, Moodfuel

This year's World Happiness Report is creating a flap, but the results may be a distraction

On Mar. 19, in collaboration with many local organizations and interviewers, the University of Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre & the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network released their annual World Happiness Report for 2024 covering 143 countries. Scores were calculated using six metrics โ€“ purchasing power, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, freedom to make life choices, generosity and freedom from corruption, plus a new generational perspective.

The Scandinavian countries swept the top 10 again. Yea for:

  1. Finland ๐Ÿ‡ซ๐Ÿ‡ฎ
  2. Denmark ๐Ÿ‡ฉ๐Ÿ‡ฐ
  3. Iceland ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ธ
  4. Sweden ๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ช

The United States ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ fell to 23rd. It's the first time we didn't rank in the top 20. Boo.

Drilling down into the new data on generational differences, common thought is that young people are happiest and contentment declines with age, then pops up again in elderhood, forming a "U" shape across the lifespan. However, report researchers were surprised by the steep decrease in happiness among youth ages 10-24 almost worldwide. Young people reported many more "negative emotions" about worry, sadness and anger.

For young people, the U.S. landed almost half way down the list at 62nd in happiness, right next to the Dominican Republic and Peru. Despite this decline, and perhaps paradoxically, the report cites Millennials and Generation Z as the most generous age group, much more likely than their elders to help others in need.

Americans aged 60+ reported feeling much happier than those under 30 by a large margin even when worry about dementia was factored in. For ages 30-59, happiness also increased with age.

There's global inequality of happiness too

Normally, inequality has an economic or ethnic focus, but the report documented "the inequality of happiness" through a self-evaluation known as the Cantril Ladder. Respondents placed themselves on this imaginary, 10-rung ladder with the bottom as the worst evaluation and the top, or 10th, rung being the best.

The Greater Good Science Center summarizes happiness inequality as "the psychological parallel to income inequality." If thatโ€™s the case, it has global implications for discussions about equity and privilege. Report researchers noted a 20% increase in the inequality of happiness over the last dozen years, citing it as a more powerful indicator of wellbeing than income inequality.

Let's discuss the elephant

While measuring happiness helps leaders and residents feel better about their countries (telemark skiing, anyone?), its use as an indicator of a country's overall wellbeing is somewhat ambiguous. The report specified that an average of 1,000 people responded from the 143 countries surveyed, but data about their ethnicity, housing, employment and other significant social factors was not factored in and GDP can't function as a default catch-all for socioeconomics. Therefore, I'd like to know who responded. Somehow, I bet it wasn't people affected by ever-present societal obstacles, such as racism, anti-queer bias, lack of access to healthcare, housing insecurity and other wicked challenges.

We need a more powerful, persuasive gauge. Let's flush "happiness" and consider mental wellness instead.

Obviously, we'd have some challenges. Of course, there's the problem of stigma. Most people in wealthy countries, particularly Americans, don't like discussing, let alone evaluating, their own mental health because they're afraid others might interpret it as weakness.

Then, there are the numerous variables comprising mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as "emotional, psychological and social wellbeing...(affecting) how we think, feel and act," but also "how we handle stress, relate to others and make healthy choices." The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it "a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next." Whew, that's a lot for a group of volunteer social scientists, economists, demographers and statisticians to synthesize into a happy, orange and gold report.

Still, spotlighting mental wellness (or the lack thereof) in a document discussed internationally would bring needed attention to the mental health crises many countries are experiencing. WHO has been able to compile a 136-page Mental Health Atlas every three years comprising results from almost 170 countries using five separate evaluation categories. Unfortunately, WHO staffers are really the only ones who know about it, probably because it doesn't have a catchy title and the valuable data inside is as dense and robust with context as the World Happiness Report is spare (hey, authors, why are our youth so unhappy?). Plus, no joyous orange and gold โ€“ more reds. For crisis.

A mental wellness report would help to smash stigma. Wouldn't it be great if all the therapists, wellness coaches, sustainability gurus and healthcare corporates currently plugging happiness on the social channels discussed a mental health report with the same degree of self-interest and marketing savvy?

Finally, a well-managed, highly-employed, internationally-based team could create a broad, fact-checked, annual mental health report to make it rain. Once the leaders of the wealthiest countries learned about the exposure of their shoddy funding records for national mental healthcare and community supports because they're too busy bombing or deporting, they would spend and spend to make the problem go away. Then, they would fund supports for mental wellness in struggling countries so those folks could achieve prosperity...and...OK, now I'm just dreaming, but it's a good, worthwhile dream....

Author image
Supporting people in recovery from trauma and suicidal intensity is my Why. I live differently abled & am proudly part-Indigenous (Mvskoke).
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