The last few years have brought their share of tragic and miserable events: war in Syria, violence across central Africa, floods and tsunamis, and a global financial crisis. The U.S. has been spared major cataclysm, but the news hasn’t been particularly uplifting, given an anemic recovery, growing inequality, and mounting environmental stress—exacerbated by political gridlock. It’s thus not a huge surprise that, according to a new global survey, Americans report themselves a little less happy in the past.
The rest of the world, however, is different: The average surveyed person planet-wide reports greater happiness than 10 years ago—which was happier than many reported 30 years ago. That said, it turns out that the factors that lead people to self-report as happy aren’t as obvious as you might think. And this suggests the limits of using happiness as a guide for making public policy.