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We’ve Been Getting Gloomier. A Stronger Sense of Community Can Help With That.

Look to local governance to build positive feelings about our democracy by nurturing social connections, autonomy and freedom. Don’t look to Washington.

Unhappiness image
This year’s annual World Happiness Report (WHR), a long-term global evaluation and country ranking, shows the United States falling from 15th to 23rd since the 2023 report was released.

To anyone familiar with American politics or the current economic climate, it will come as little surprise that the national mood is gloomier. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll finds that “dread” is the most common feeling associated with the 2024 presidential election. When it comes to the economy, two-thirds of Americans believe the ability of the average person to get ahead is worse than it was a year ago, and fewer than half say their financial situation has moved in the right direction over that period, according to Wall Street Journal data.

But the WHR data showing Americans’ happiness in decline also shows a way we might be able to begin reversing that trend: by nurturing community. One of the key benefits of democracy is giving people more say in the way they are governed. This instills a sense of freedom, which the WHR found to have a significant impact on overall happiness. Of six factors tested, the two that had the most impact on happiness levels were social support — having friends or family that can be counted on in times of trouble — and the freedom to choose what one does with their life.

The way we govern ourselves in our cities, towns and counties can have a profound effect on those factors. Reversing the decline in community and connectedness, a shift detailed in works such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Tim Carney’s Alienated America, won’t come from the halls of Congress or the White House.

Indeed, Americans are largely unsure about the state of our democracy. A newly released AP-NORC poll shows that while Americans believe democracy is a good system of government, just 3 in 10 believe democracy in the United States is functioning well. Our State Policy Network polling shows that two-thirds of voters, including a majority from all political parties, believe that the federal government has too much control over their day-to-day lives. Similar numbers believe that too many of the nation’s laws are in reality regulations made by unelected agency officials in Washington.

That is not to say that people would be happier without any government. A strong economy and lack of corruption also play into happiness levels. But maximizing self-determination, which is naturally at odds with a large, centralized government, also maximizes happiness and fulfillment. America’s system of government allows for strong localized governments to deal with the immediate and specific needs of communities without trying to impose one-size-fits-all solutions on a nation of more than 330 million.

When people are governed by smaller bodies closer to home, there is greater opportunity for them to be part of the law- and policy-making process, which boosts positive feelings about the effectiveness of our democracy, provides a sense of autonomy and freedom that increases overall happiness, and creates stronger social connections within the community.

There is no silver-bullet solution for improving human happiness. But creating a stronger sense of community, and especially one in which people feel they can provide input and shape results, will drive happiness up. America’s system of government was founded to work this way, and we must work to preserve this unique feature that is not only the most effective way to keep government efficient and honest but also has the side benefit of creating happier people and communities.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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