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Daniel Bruch column: What makes you happy?

That is the question that led the United Nations to declare March 20 to be the International Day of Happiness. Celebrated the first time on March 20, 2013, the day's purpose is to "highlight the importance of global happiness and its impact on world development and peace." So how happy is our world? According to the World Economic Forum's 2018 World Happiness Report, Finland is top of the world for happiness, closely followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Nordic countries predominate in happiness and are known for safety, social progressiveness, stability, minimal corruption and a trusting attitude toward police and politicians.

On the other hand, some of the world's wealthiest nations, the USA (18th) and Japan for examples, are lower on the list. It was once thought that the wealthiest countries, based on GDP per capita (gross domestic product), would be the happiest. Since the opposite may be true, researchers and policymakers searched for other indicators of national happiness. They found six significant factors which contribute to happiness; GDP per capita, corruption levels, social support networks, life expectancy, generosity, and the freedom to make life choices.

In summary, while the US ranks highly for per capita income, in happiness it is ranked substantially below most other wealthy nations. The reason is that it performs poorly on social measures: inequality has grown, confidence in the government has fallen, and life expectancy has declined.

With regard to inequality, the World Economic Forum includes changes in technology, trade policies and globalization as factors in the dramatic rise in wealth inequality in the USA during the past 40 years.

Perhaps the most important reason, however, is that our U.S. government developed policies that led to increasing inequality. Beginning in the late 1970's, these policies included deregulation, tax changes favoring the wealthy and powerful, de-unionization, federal monetary policies, and other policies that worked to reduced wages and employment.

In terms of confidence in our government, the Pew Research Group recently found that public trust in the government remains close to historic lows. Only 18 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right. Contrast that with the late 1960's and early 1970's when almost 75 percent of us trusted our government. The decline has mostly been consistent since then.

While reasons for this have varied over the years, the major reason given during the past two years, according to a Rand Corporation study, is a "lack of objective facts and rational discourse." Perhaps the words of the sainted Adlai Stevenson could remind us of an impetus for change, "Public confidence in the integrity of the Government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for."

Finally, life expectancy across our planet is steadily moving upward. According to three recent

publications of the Center for Disease Control, however, it is trending downward in the United States.

The three studies highlight the worrying downward trend in Americans' average life expectancy and focus on our ongoing drug crisis and climbing suicide rates. Among other factors, those two particularly contribute to a third straight year of decline. Inter-related and also of importance are obesity and depression. Our country has one of the highest rates of obesity and the highest rate of antidepressant use in the world. Together these behaviors make us a country under profound stress.

So what can we do? We can remember that the goals of the International Day of Happiness are to promote and celebrate world happiness as a basic human goal. It recognizes the need for a more inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness, and the well-being of all people. Or as Helen Keller said, "True happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."