Could the US Finally Become One of the Happiest Countries on Earth?
If you’re like me, you look at those “World’s Happiest Countries” articles every year with a mixture of jealousy and awe. It’s easy to see what the countries that make the list have in common; their residents can count on their governments and fellow citizens in times of need, they embrace a healthy work/life balance, and they value education enough to provide it to their populace. This year, the US seems to be moving closer to those ideals.
We can count on our government
My husband, who used to travel around the US teaching classes in automation, lost his job this year. I know you’re not surprised. What company wants to put their trainers on a plane every week to go jetting across the country? And what client-company wants to gather its employees together in a classroom to watch a PowerPoint right now? There aren’t any. He can’t find another job in his field.
But that’s okay even though his salary used to be our biggest source of income. He’s drawing unemployment compensation and was recently approved for another 3 months of payments. That will bring him up to the one-year mark for collecting this benefit, which is usually much more time-limited.
He’s not making more on unemployment than he did when he worked, as some people were able to do by collecting the now-expired $600 supplement. But he’s making enough to pay the mortgage. He’s making enough to buy food. He’s making enough to pay the electric bill. And we’re incredibly grateful for the assistance.
We’re — let’s face it — happy. We’re happy the way we might be if we lived in Denmark (#2 on the list) or Norway (#5) or Luxemburg (#10). Having a government that provides a strong safety net for its citizens helped to land these countries a place on the world’s happiest countries list again this year.
In the US, we’ve never had the security of knowing our government would be there to catch us if the highwire got yanked out from under our feet. In spite of all the craziness we’ve seen this year from our elected officials, and there has been a ton of it, it’s good to know we can trust our representatives to step up to the bat when we need some support. Better late than never.
We can count on one another
Yesterday, after reading an article in the Washington Post about the differential impacts of the coronavirus on high-, middle-, and low-income people, I went to Maria Patton’s GoFundMe page to contribute. She’s one of us, and she needed help.
Lots of people had the same impulse. The 9K that had been collected for her when I went to the website yesterday morning to contribute had turned into 34K when I reopened the page to provide this link. In our mass support of Maria, we’ve become something like Iceland (#4) where a high proportion of respondents to the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s survey “…said they felt like they had a fellow citizen to count on when the going gets rough.”
This isn’t unheard of in the US. I grew up listening to my parents talk about the community spirit that infused the country during and after WWII. They told me about their willing sacrifices, their victory gardens, and their efforts to join together with friends and neighbors to share what they had, even though it wasn’t much. They looked back at this era as one of the happiest times of their lives, in spite of the material deprivation.
This year, I’ve gotten a taste of what that experience must have been like. I’ve seen more posts on my Nextdoor listserv from neighbors asking for help, offering help, and acknowledging the help they’ve received than ever before.
We’re all in this together. We can count on one another. If knowing that doesn’t make you as happy as an Icelander, what will?
Freedom from student loans (for a minute)
The provision of a free or affordable college education contributes to the happiness of the Dutch (#6), the Fins (#1), and the Norwegians (#5). The pause for student loan payments in the US is in no way the equivalent of free education, but it probably feels the same, for now.
This year, college graduates are getting an inkling of what it would be like to live in a country that values education enough to pay for it, and we’re moving in that direction. It’s possible that the incoming president, Joe Biden, will extend the student loan payment moratorium or cancel some student debt, especially in low-income households. That would move us closer to the practices of the world’s happiest countries.
In previous years, my husband rose at 4 a.m. so he could beat the traffic to the airport. He worked all week, lived in hotels, and flew back home on Friday evenings. He enjoyed his job, and it provided a paycheck.
But when he lost it, we gained something even more valuable — time together. We’ve spent it doing all the things you read about people doing to while away the time this year — we gardened and cooked and worked on our house and learned new skills. We bing-watched the Great British Baking Show and Shameless. We talked and laughed and danced.
In this way, life in the US in 2020 was more like life in Luxembourg (#10), Sweden (#7), and Denmark (#2) whose citizens cite a good work/life balance as one of the keys to their happiness. Now that many of us have gotten a taste of what it feels like to live a more balanced life, we may not be too quick to dive headfirst back into the frenzied productivity so typical of pre-pandemic life in the US.
We’ve got a ways to go
I was intrigued by one of Switzerland’s (#3) happiness generators — its citizens have a full voice in their government. They vote on everything, “…from how many vacation days workers should have to how many immigrants should be allowed into the country, and referendums down to the local level happen many times a year.” Contrast that with the way the US government works as seen in the spending/coronavirus bill passed by Congress this month.
Who had time to read the 5593-page piece of legislation that was slapped together and handed off for a vote? Not me. I was just hoping for an extension of unemployment benefits. I thought a stimulus check would be nice. But in the US, there’s never any bacon without pork.
If this were Switzerland, I could have my say about whether my taxes should go to fund gender programs in Pakistan or whether the Chinese should have to recognize the next Dalai Lama (as if we could make them) or to figure out the underlying causes of poverty in Guatemala. All of these were included in the final bill.
Maybe I want to fund those positions and maybe I don’t. But I’ll tell you this much — I want to have a say. The Swiss would have, and that contributes to making them one of the happiest countries in the world.
Full speed ahead to our future happiness
AOC agrees with me (she often follows my lead 😃). She believed the American people should have had the chance to read the bill so they could let their elected officials know what they thought about all of it. Our politicians are supposed to be representing us. Their votes should provide proof that this is exactly what they are doing.
Having a bigger, more transparent say in how our tax dollars are spent could get some traction in the 2030s when AOC is our president. If you’re invested in living in one of the happiest nations on earth, this day probably can’t come soon enough for you. I know it can’t for me.