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Editorial: Bipartisan duo is addressing American unhappiness

Editorial: Bipartisan duo is addressing American unhappiness

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, writing on behalf of the Continental Congress, proclaimed that all people have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These stand as guiding principles for our republic, shaping both our system of government and the public’s expectations for their nation.

A bipartisan duo of elected leaders recently argued that we’re doing too little to advance that third and vitally important principle, and they want to find ways to help Americans better pursue the promise of happiness. That’s a worthwhile discussion and one worth following as it takes shape.

Each year, the Gallup World Poll compiles a World Happiness Report, using quality-of-life survey data from 140 nations, averaged over three years, along with input from “interdisciplinary experts from the fields of economics, psychology, sociology and beyond” to rank countries based on their population’s happiness.

This year’s report, released in March, found Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden atop the rankings. That wasn’t much of a surprise since the Nordic countries routinely perform well in these surveys.

What was surprising, however, was the United States landing at No. 23, the first time our nation fell outside the top 20 since Gallup began this effort 12 years ago. Costa Rica, Kuwait, Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates all ranked higher.

Particularly troubling is the steep decline in happiness among young people. That tracks with polling from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics released in April that found only 9% of voters aged 18-29 believe the country is headed in the right direction.

For U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, the report confirmed something they had been discussing for a while: that despite the high quality of life many Americans enjoy, people seem more dour, anxious and, well, unhappy than ever before.

So in April, they launched the “Restoring the Common Good Initiative,” an effort to explore the reasons behind the dissatisfaction evident throughout the nation. They assembled a diverse and bipartisan group of academics, writers, thinkers, activists and others, and began holding round-table discussions with members of the public about how they feel and ways to better facilitate happiness.

“Many Americans are less happy and less hopeful than ever before,” they said in a joint statement. “The source of this anxiety may vary, but many feel like they are powerless in their economic lives, disconnected from community, and distrustful of the institutions of government, media, higher education, religion, business and others.

“This broad social and political disaffection begs for a diverse set of leaders to spark a conversation about what makes a truly good life and why this life feels so inaccessible to many Americans.”

In a March op-ed, Murphy wrote that Americans are unhappy despite low unemployment, slowing inflation, rising GDP and a falling rate of violent crime.

He focused specifically on one worrisome trend: the lack of deep, nurtured relationships with other people which are essential to humans’ sense of fulfillment. He noted studies that show more Americans than ever say they have three or fewer closer friends.

But how on earth can the government help with that? For Murphy, bad public policy choices — a lack of regulations for social media, for instance, and weak protections for workers — are among the root causes and areas in which the public sector could do better.

As Murphy and Cox both point out, the Declaration implores our government to empower Americans to pursue happiness, meaning officials have a responsibility to embrace policies that can foster hope and optimism among the public.

Whether this is a well-meaning initiative or something that results in a policy agenda remains to be seen, but it’s refreshing to see public officials focus on this nationwide concern and to seek ways to work together to address it.

Written by the Virginian-Pilot editorial board. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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