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.
One thought on “The American Paradox: Rising Incomes and Declining Happiness”
Stress is a product of each of the variables mentioned. While the #1 stressor for many is financial difficulties, there is little correlation between wealth and happiness. In fact we are experiencing a breakdown in the fabric of our society with more people than every saying that they are more stressed now, than 5 years ago. With physical isolation increasing thus producing less social support, yet the use of technology to communicate and connect is increasing via the many apps now available. Nothing is better than having a physical social support network, even Facebook cannot replace just being with someone who cares.The loss of social support is increasing as communities are becoming less friendly and supportive. Do we really know our neighbors and where do our family members live now? Stress is a silent killer and these variables are directly affected by increasing and prolonged stress maintained over longer and longer periods of time. Lack of personal freedom affects stress levels when one perceives his/her world as being out of control.We’re seeing the erosion of our influence over our so-called government leaders who are becoming more isolated from their constituents and acting a on self-serving agenda. Lower donations indicates a lack of trust in many non-profits who use the money to bolster their own pockets and not those whom they serve. This creates enormous stress. Chronic stress increases additions such as the overuse of opiods and alcohol. These addictions are used to counteract stress and despair that exists at the expense of our bodies and emotional distress. Stress is at the core of unhappiness and it is essential that we find new ways to counteract this rising tide.