The World Happiness and “Shorter Lives” Reports: Important Warnings to Americans

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We have commented earlier on the World Happiness Reports, published since 2012 by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In the 2022 report, the US ranks 15th, just ahead of Germany and behind eight European Union nations, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

In March 2023, NPR reported that life expectancy in the US has declined “for a nearly unprecedented second year in a row – down to 76 years” – and the fact that maternal mortality in the US reached a high in 2021.  The report noted that the authors of a 10-year-old study, “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” were not surprised at these two otherwise stunning revelations. The “Shorter Lives” report had been conducted by a National Academy of Sciences panel and funded by the National Institutes of Health. It compared US health and death with other developed countries and “showed – convincingly – that the U.S. was stalling on health advances in the population while other countries raced ahead.”

The “Shorter Lives” report also found several other alarming trends:

  • The top proportion of the US population “does worse than the top proportion of other populations.”
  • In every measure panelists considered – the public health and medical care system, individual behaviors like diet and tobacco use, social factors like poverty and inequality, the physical environment, and public policies and values – they “found problems that distinguish the United States from other countries.”

If this report was issued a decade ago, why are our shortcomings not only persistent but even getting worse? The NPR report offers several plausible explanations and a suggestion:

  • Quoting Francis Collins, former NIH Director, the US is “actually very innovative in making these kinds of breakthroughs, but we do very poorly in providing them to our population.”
  • In addition, US lawmakers do not like talking about how we lag behind other countries for a simple reason: “The problem with foreign countries is that they’re not in someone’s congressional district.”
  • The report continues that getting policy ideas from other countries to make small but important improvements is just an obvious move. “[T]here are dozens and dozens of countries on almost every continent of the world that have outperformed the United States for 50 years… It’s worth taking a look at what they’ve done and Americanizing it – you don’t have to take it right off the shelf.”

What is only obliquely mentioned in the NPR report about why we are in such bad shape and what we can do about it is a basic political reality. For decades – not only since the Trump era – the Republican Party has routinely voted against initiatives at the national level that have been promulgated by Democrats that would address our problems; such initiatives do closely resemble policies that have been in place – and yielded positive results – in some of our peer nations for at least three generations.

Some of these include compromises to the Affordable Care Act and consistent threats to outright repeal it; opposition to raising the minimum wage; opposition to paid family and parental leave; opposition to safety measures on our rail system; opposition to gun safety legislation; anti-union initiatives; initiatives to restrict voting access and other anti-democratic moves, with their roots in racism and increasing exponentially in the past couple of years; and the rolling back of women’s right to control their own bodies. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

These examples are not to say that Democrats and Democratic legislation are always perfect. However, because Americans are now much more progressive in their overall outlook, and thus much closer to the stances of our sister nations (even if we do not realize it), the right-leaning positions of the GOP on most issues like these are way out of step with the majority of Americans.

Republican opposition to so many progressive initiatives lies at the base of our low ranking in the World Happiness Reports and our measures as a nation on life expectancy and maternal mortality. The remedy? All US citizens of voting age who have any concern whatsoever with how Republican legislators have steered our nation’s direction must, at minimum, vote in every primary and election – and vote for candidates who will truly represent their own views (which, over time, turns out to be Democrats).

In addition to voting, we can and should participate in the democratic process in every way we can, according to our own skills, abilities, time, situations, and financial health. Thanks primarily to Republicans – over time, not just recently – the US is in a very fraught situation on many levels. For our own sakes and those of our descendants, we cannot continue to hand over the reins of our democratic republic to officials who do not believe in basic democratic principles and who actively work against them.