You’re not imagining it – 2017 was an unhappy year in the US

9 years ago, I was part of a small team that founded what is now Happiness Alliance. Our goal was to get happiness taken seriously as the primary objective of public policy, instead of the status quo in which governments maximise economic indicators without questioning whether they are even good metrics of the economy, never mind why we prioritise the economy above everything else in life. This is not a new idea; in fact I still think Bobby Kennedy said it best in 1968:

…Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile….

And yet, four decades later we still encountered endless skepticism about the whole idea. Those who accepted the premise kept telling us that it was futile because public policy interventions never make a measurable difference to happiness anyway.

Sadly, recent work by the Happiness Alliance (I am no longer involved, but cheer them on from the sidelines) has proven the skeptics wrong in the most negative way possible. We can now clearly see that the grinding awfulness of 2017 was not just in my head or my social circle, but has added up to a measurable decrease in self-reported happiness:

There are a couple of important caveats to understand here:

  • This is a “convenience sample”, meaning it has not been weighted to be fully representative of the population –but there’s no reason to expect that 2017’s sample will have new biases, having been recruited in the same ways as previous years’.
  • We don’t know where every survey taker was, so it’s impossible to compare US-based respondents with those elsewhere –but we do know that the vast majority of respondents are in the US.

It’s not a huge effect size—only 5-6%—but it is highly statistically significant, and when I remember all the people saying we’d never see any changes at all, I can’t help but be impressed. And glad that this thing I helped start has had the staying power to be able to look at trends over years.

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