By Thierry Malleret, economist
Despite having a higher GDP-per-capita than most other countries, the U.S. has a lower life expectancy and a much sicker population. To a significant extent, “deaths of despair” account for this discrepancy. The increase in “white” deaths caused by suicide, drugs and other addictions is a trend unique to the U.S. It points to an economic and social dislocation of such proportions that some U.S. pundits now claim that inequalities and accumulating despair among the white working class threaten the very existence of the “American republic.”
This is a quintessentially U.S. paradox: income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness (or, in the jargon of economists, subjective wellbeing) has not. It has even gotten worse in the past few years, as the average GDP per capita is still rising, but happiness is on the decline.
The UN’s 2017 Global Happiness Report shows the extent to which the emphasis placed on the social foundations of happiness/wellbeing plays out in the case of the U.S. Falling American happiness is caused primarily by social rather than economic factors.
Of the six explanatory variables, the two that are moving in the right direction in terms of increased happiness are of an economic nature (income and healthy life expectancy), while the remaining four accounting for less happiness are all social variables: (1) less social support, (2) less sense of personal freedom, (3) lower donations, and (4) more perceived corruption in government and business.
However, almost half of the overall drop in the U.S. measurement of less happiness can be attributed to changes not accounted for by the six factors. Most likely they are (1) rising inequalities and (2) waning social trust.