The Path to Happiness: Lessons From the 2015 World Happiness Report

04/23/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated Aug 07, 2015

Getting richer but not happier: It's a familiar story, for people and for nations. The purpose of the World Happiness Report, now in its third edition for 2015, is to remind governments, civil society, and individuals that income alone cannot secure our well-being. True happiness depends on social capital, not just financial capital.

The evidence is straightforward. Around the world Gallup International asks people about their satisfaction with life. "Imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand?" Countries differ widely, and systematically, in their average scores. Using these scores, it is then possible to determine, statistically, the causes of life satisfaction around the world.

Yes, income matters. Economic development is important, especially the escape from extreme poverty. Health matters as well, both physical and mental. No surprises there. But what is perhaps most important is our lives as "social animals," to use Aristotle's famous phrase. Life satisfaction depends on strong social support networks, on generosity and voluntarism, on "generalized trust" among strangers in the society, and on the trust in government. People living in places where government is corrupt suffer the pain of less satisfaction in their own lives.

The basic point that well-being depends not only on wealth but also on the quality of our human relations is at once obvious (who could deny it?) but somehow absent from our politics and our daily discourse. We don't have headlines declaring "trust is down in the U.S." (which it is), but we have endless news headlines declaring "GDP growth has slowed."

Our society increasingly values people and their behavior according to their wealth, not to their integrity. Many of our leading CEOs preside over companies that have committed massive financial crimes -- fraud, price rigging, insider trading, and more -- and have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines; yet these CEOs are still revered because they are rich, and they remain frequent guests at the White House for the same reason. Can there be any doubt why trust is down in the U.S.? Society is more unequal, and our leading businesses seem relentlessly to cut corners, if not to flagrantly break the law.

The report can help, gradually and step by step, to reverse this moral decline, to rebuild social trust and faith in government. Of course, this won't happen quickly. Money will once again dominate U.S. politics in the 2016 election; our candidates are already bought. Yet by comparing the countries at the top of the happiness tables with those (like the U.S.) lower down, we have much to learn, and much to reform.

The top countries, especially the Nordic countries, have much lower inequality than in the United States, and much greater social insurance. The U.S. mostly leaves the poor to fend for themselves. Not so in the happiest countries. They possess what is called the "social democratic" ethos: that society should look after each other, and especially the least well-off. The top countries don't accept that their CEOs walk away with tens of millions of dollars of annual compensation while the shop floor worker experiences declines in real purchasing power. The top countries don't accept the flood of money in politics and lobbying that virtually defines the U.S. political system today.

This year's report outlines some of the ways forward to higher life satisfaction. Governments can evaluate policy choices according to their likely (and then measured) effects on happiness. Governments can ensure access to mental health services, early childhood development programs, and safe environments where trust can grow. Education, including moral education and mindfulness training, can play an important role.

We are at an early stage in the new science of happiness and life satisfaction, and at an even earlier stage in thinking about the implications for public policy. Yet the ancient sages and the latest research both tell us to keep moving forward, to put happiness back at the center of our public concerns, and to place money making as just one among many objectives. Governments around the world are taking note and seem ready to make happiness (or life satisfaction) one of the important indicators for the new Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted at the United Nations this fall. This would be an important step forward in ensuring that human well-being is at the very center of global concerns and policy choices in the coming years.