Why are Americans So Unhappy? – And What to Do About It

What constitutes happiness?

One would think a country such as America, which is built on the pursuit of happiness, freedoms, and prosperity would rank among the happiest nations in the world – but sadly, this is not the case.

The London-based Legatum Institute has spent the last five years researching the prosperity index of 142 countries, which covers 96% of the world’s population. They found the U.S. ranks 11th in overall prosperity, and Norway ranked #1 (Forbes, 2013). This is an improvement over past years but still not what Americans expect.

According to the 2012 World Happiness Report, published by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, the U.S. ranks 23rd on a 50-country happiness index, far behind #1 Iceland (Kluger, 2013). Other reports reveal that 85% of Americans are unhappy in their current jobs. Many link this to Americans’ all-time low approval rating of the government, rising unemployment, and other financial factors; but is it more than that.

The Well-Being Index Says…

In 2008, Gallup-Healthways started the Well-Being Index which looks at the well-being of populations throughout the United States. In 2013, there continued to be a global decline in Americans’ well-being: life evaluation, physical health, and healthy behavior scores all decreased.

According to another article in Time magazine, only about 1/3 of Americans have described themselves as very happy and the number who identify themselves as optimists has plummeted from 79% to 50%. Obesity is rampant and depression and anxiety disorders affect at least 20% of our population. According to the World Health Organization, 1 out of 3 Americans is diagnosed with depression, and more than 75% suffer from chronic stress and are completely unaware of it. It’s not just adults either. Studies show that 11% of the American population is diagnosed with depression by the age of 18.

Clearly having more is not the answer and the old adage that money can’t buy happiness may be correct, especially if your income cannot meet your desires. In an era of paparazzi, reality shows, and even on Facebook, Americans spend excessive energy comparing themselves to others and in turn ever increasing our wants and desires and the continued stress of “keeping up with the Jones'” may very well be killing us.

A research study conducted by Technische University stated that 1 in 3 persons felt jealous, miserable and socially isolated after viewing friends’ statuses on social media sites. Many of us assume happiness is a derivative of success but in fact many professionally successful and wealthy people are actually not happy. Even more surprising is that what many of us might perceive as success could actually be hindering our happiness, well-being and overall economic growth.

Do We Have It Backwards?

Jackie Ruka
Jackie Ruka

“As a society we’ve gotten it backwards: it is happiness that leads to success not vice versa,” notes Jackie Ruka, author of “Get Happy and Create a Kick Butt Life!” and Founder of the Get Happy Zone (www.gethappyzone.com) personal and professional development organization. “The ‘failure is not an option’ mentality is an old belief system based upon fear, insecurity and competition, which results in working too much for fear of job and income loss. But, this state of mind can literally kill us. Conversely, a happy workforce leads to increased productivity and meaningfulness at work in addition to a more fruitful and meaningful personal life. It’s a cycle. There are multiple scientific studies proving that we are, in fact, the ambassadors of our own happiness in that we have full control over this enviable state of mind, which is a powerful precursor of success in terms of the true meaning of the word and how it impacts the human experience.”

Ms. Ruka knows this cycle first hand. She was once like many corporate Americans, working 60 hours a week, fighting traffic, and ignoring her own health and happiness. A car accident actually became what she describes as a “RUDE Awakening” had helped change her life. “One day the car became out of control and I was lucky enough to roll off the freeway where the car slowly landed in front of not one but two eight foot Buddha statues, peering over me. This was a sign for me to take control over my life and my health. Simultaneous to my car breaking down, so was my health and my body. I had been ignoring back pain and numbness in my legs and feet for some time … In order to save my own life … I walked away from a six-figure career. It was during my healing process that I recognized how my happiness had been compromised and what I could do to power my health and happiness,” states Ruka. It is from this experience that Ruka developed the GetHappyZone.com, a self-development portal to serve professionals on their happiness journey.

Many of us state we want happiness, but often we can’t describe what happiness really is to us. Is it a beautiful home, a happy marriage and family, a healthy body and mind, or something more profound? Ruka states her definition of happiness is “expressing your inner JOY. This to me is expressing your natural ‘calling’ to sing your heart song out loud. The best way in which to align this is to harmonize your thoughts with your words and your actions, in as many areas in life as possible.” She also states that “In my research of my book, the happiness in one’s life is a choice that is made by that person and that person alone, regardless of marital or child status.”

As a society we’ve gotten it backwards: it is happiness that leads to success not vice versa. – Jackie Ruka

Scientifically Proven Happiness Strategies

Ruka offers this list of 10 scientifically proven happiness strategies to help us make that choice of happiness in our own lives:

The Happiness Wheel
What makes up Happiness
  1. Savor ordinary events. Study participants who took the time to do this showed “significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression,” psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky notes. Reflecting back on moments of your day, even those you might ordinarily hurry through, is a worthwhile effort.
  2. Avoid comparisons. Focusing on your own personal achievements instead of making comparisons to others will better impact your happiness and self-esteem, according to Lyubomirsky, which leads to greater life satisfaction. It’s easy to lose sight of what achievements, both personal and professional, have enriched our life, and we must remind ourselves…often.
  3. Put money low on the list. According to researchers Kasser and Ryan, those who put money high on their priority list are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. “Money-seekers also score lower on tests of vitality and self-actualization,” Ryan says.
  4. Have meaningful goals. As humans, we thrive on having a purpose, but what is purpose if there is no meaning behind it? “People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations,” father and son team Diener and Biswas-Diener found. Positive psychology authority Tal Ben-Shahar agrees, having stated “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable.”
  5. Take initiative at work. Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski says that, “when we express creativity, help others, suggest improvements or do additional tasks on the job, we make our work more rewarding and feel more in control.”
  6. Make friends and treasure family. This may seem like a no-brainer, but we need relationships. Sometimes we underestimate the importance of such connections. And, the more genuine the better as Diener and Biswas-Diener notes, “We don’t just need relationships; we need close ones that involve caring and understanding.”
  7. Fake it until you make it. This actually works, according to Diener and Biswas-Diener, who assert, “Happy people see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points.” This may take some practice, so try to smile even when you don’t feel like it.
  8. Keep a gratitude journal. When you are sick and tired of being sick and tired, you can either become a time bomb waiting to go off or you can recalibrate. An excellent tool for detoxing and redirecting your thoughts is with a gratitude journal. Those who write in a journal on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to achieve personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons. Martin Seligman’s research also revealed that people who write “gratitude letters” to someone significant in their lives score lower on depression and higher on happiness and the effect lasts for weeks. Gratitude and the human spirit together make powerful allies.
  9. Get moving. According to a Duke University study, exercise may be as effective as drugs in treating even major depression. Exercise releases endorphins, the feel good hormone. Duke researcher Blumenthal suggested that “exercise may be beneficial because patients are actually taking an active role in trying to get better … patients who exercised may have felt a greater sense of mastery over their condition and gained a greater sense of accomplishment. They felt more self-confident and had better self-esteem…” When you feel good, you tend to continue the behavior related to it and are motivated to adopt others.
  10. Serve others. This is often referred to as a “helper’s high.” According to ethicist and researcher Stephen Post, helping a neighbor, volunteering, and donating goods and services results in more health benefits than exercising or quitting smoking. Researcher Elizabeth Dunn similarly found that those who spent money on others reported greater happiness than those who spent it on themselves.

Happiness Is…

Ruka concludes, “With so much science underscoring that we are active participants in the process, I prefer to regard happiness as a verb. Indeed, navigating happiness is a journey filled with a series of actions…it’s not an outcome. No matter the circumstance, we all have the capacity to be happy. The only question is what next step you will take to foster your own?”

For many Americans seeking this change, this may seem overwhelming, but taking small steps can change your whole life. When asked what she felt the first major step individuals need to make to be happier, Ruka stated “I feel Americans must first reduce the overwhelm in life by focusing on your desires and not your fears, form a simpler plan of living in your happiness through small tweaks and changes to how you spend your time, how you speak your words and how you place action upon this. Then harmony can reign sooner than later, and this leads you closer to your joy.”

Learn more about Ruka’s recipe for happiness through her book “Get Happy and Create a Kick Butt Life!” being launched in June, as well as on her Get Happy Zone website.