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What America Can Learn From the World's Happiest Countries

A society with all sorts of really nice universal goodies, tons of vacation, and low inequality is a nice place to live, and its residents are happier

The U.S. has the sixth-highest inequality in the OECD, while Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark have the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh-lowest respectively. (Photo: Illustrated | Wikimedia Commons, Apple)

The U.S. has the sixth-highest inequality in the OECD, while Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark have the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh-lowest respectively. (Photo: Illustrated | Wikimedia Commons, Apple)

Item: The life expectancy of the United States was recently found to have declined for the third straight year, something typically associated with all-out war, economic crises, or political collapse. According to the CIA, as of 2017 the U.S. ranks 42nd among nations for life expectancy, behind Malta and Greece.

Item: The annual United Nations report on the world's happiest nations was released Wednesday, where the U.S. fell from 18th to 19th place. Meanwhile, the happiest country for the second straight year was Finland. Filling out the rest of the top 5 were Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands.

This raises the question: What might the U.S. learn from the world happiness grandmasters? A good place to start would be copy-pasting their economic and social welfare institutions.

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On first blush, there are some obvious big differences that almost certainly explain much of the difference. All these nations have extensive welfare states, with universal health care, generous benefits for parents, seniors, disabled people, the unemployed, and so on. If someone in Finland has an accident or run of bad luck, the state will catch them — and it will also help new parents out with the enormous expenses of child-rearing. That means both a better life for people who have kids, lose their job, or get sick, plus lower stress for everyone else who knows society will protect them from misfortune. But in the U.S., with its grossly dysfunctional health-care system and tattered safety net, such events can be personally devastating. For instance, children cause fully 36 percent of U.S. poverty, and some 42 percent of American cancer patients lose their entire life savings after diagnosis.

Anu Partenen testifies that when she moved from Finland to America, she quickly started having panic attacks over health insurance worries.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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