The one democratic principle is that “the end of all government is the happiness of the People…the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the point to be obtained.” John Adams, 1781
“The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Thomas Jefferson, 1809
Jefferson and Adams famously didn’t agree on much. But on the primary role of government, they were aligned: happiness and the well-being of citizens must be the primary aim of good government.
In the United States, it feels like we’ve drifted so far away from this that we’ve collectively forgotten it’s possible, let alone expected, for a government to actively pursue our happiness.
Luckily, there are many ideas ripe for adoption among organizations and countries around the world.
The United Nations 2020 World Happiness Report was released in March 2020 and went widely unnoticed. It provides several key learnings that deserve our attention.
Now in its eighth edition, the UN World Happiness Report examines how the social, urban, and natural environments influence happiness for people around the world. The report relies on data from the Gallup World Poll.
The happiness rankings break down key contributing factors including income, social support, life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and trust in government.
For the 3rd year in a row, Finland took the top spot.
Every Nordic country earned a place in the top ten: Denmark (2), Iceland (4), Norway (5), and Sweden (7).
Four of the five top ten finishers were also European — Switzerland (3), Netherlands (6), Austria (9), and Luxembourg (10).
Outside of Europe, New Zealand (8) also made the top ten.
The keys to (collective) happiness
At #18, the United States ranked high in GDP per capita and scored relatively low marks on social support, life expectancy, freedom, and corruption.
While we have the world’s largest and most dynamic economy, the US no longer leads the pack in much else.
Given how well the Nordic countries scored, the editors took a closer look and named 4 key contributors to their citizens’ happiness:
- Welfare state generosity, especially generous unemployment benefits and labor-friendly employment policies. They note that despite the fact that direct benefits accrue disproportionally to the poor directly, welfare state generosity has a strong positive effect on happiness on both poor and rich households.
- Institutional quality, which includes delivery quality and democratic quality. Delivery quality is most important and includes rule of law, control of corruption, regulatory quality, and government effectiveness. Democratic quality includes the ability to participate in selecting the government, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and political stability.
- Freedom to make life choices, including material prosperity that liberates people from scarcity, democratic political institutions that liberate people from political oppression, and tolerant and liberal cultural values that give people more room to express themselves and their unique identity.
- Trust in other people and social cohesion, which contains three dimensions: 1) connectedness to other people; 2) having good
social relations; 3) having a focus on the common good.
Imagine: A More Equitable and Supportive Economy
The contrast between these attributes and the current state of our government is stark. Let’s do a quick thought exercise. Imagine living in a country with the following:
- Generous unemployment benefits with health care that is not tied to employment.
- Legal and physical protections for workers — things like a living wage and access to PPE during a pandemic.
- Clean air, clean water, spacious parks, and unrestricted access to enjoy the planet’s natural beauty.
- World-class infrastructure including roads, rail, bridges, and airports.
- Election policies that allow (and even encourage?!) all citizens to vote, such as national vote by mail.
- Law enforcement properly trained to serve and protect all citizens.
- A president that unites us instead of creating divisions.
This vision is not intended to sound or to be political in any way. Is there a citizen among us who does not want these things?
It’s not too late. As so many of us are doing in the BLM protests around the country and the globe, let’s hold our government leaders accountable to first, do less harm.
After that, we should expect our leaders to commit to making tangible improvements to our lives. To seek to increase our happiness. Think about that.
What if we followed Bhutan’s lead (wait, no, our founding fathers’ lead) and sought to improve societal happiness as our number one “success metric”?
US GDP is f***** in 2020 anyways, what do we have to lose?