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Americans' happiness score

We're No. 6! That's according to new data from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which on Tuesday released results of a survey measuring quality of life in 36 industrialized nations.

For the last three years, the Paris-based outfit has weighed 11 criteria, including housing, income, jobs, environment, safety and work-life balance. For the third year in a row, Australia was the big winner, thanks in large part to an economy that managed to avoid the global recession of the last decade.

The U.S. hobbled across the finish line in sixth place, behind Sweden, Canada, Norway and Switzerland, which ranked second through fifth, respectively.

Not that we didn't shine in individual categories. In income and safety, we scored high, with a 10 and 8.9, respectively. However, in areas such as education and civic engagement, we fell short. Eighty-nine percent of U.S. adults ages 25 to 64 earn the equivalent of a high school degree, which scored us a mere 6.9 in education. Our voter turnout, which was part of the civic engagement measure, was considerably worse. While 93 percent of registered voters in Australia show up at the polls, only 70 percent of registered American voters bother to make the trip.

Sadly, this cannot be blamed on our lousy work-life balance. The percentage of Americans who reported working "very long" hours was 11.3. In Australia, that figure was 14.13. Then again, Australia fines citizens who don't show up at the polls.

Despite our nation's unremarkable showing, the survey has generated lots of headlines, many using the word "happiness." No surprise there, since when it comes to click bait, the word "happiness" is right up there with phrases like "hot bikini body" and "bad celebrity plastic surgery."

The search for happiness has long been a dominant feature of American life. It's a byproduct of prosperity, not to mention the most famous line in the Declaration of Independence. But the last decade has given rise to an all-out obsession with happiness.

We sign up for seminars, hire life coaches and consult gurus in search of it. We spend about $11 billion annually on pills designed to, if not deliver it, then at least keep at bay the forces that conspire against it. There is now a whole field of "happiness research" that seeks to quantify individual well-being in relation to economic and social factors. Type "happiness" into Amazon and you will find countless books suggesting that happiness is as easy as keeping a journal or making your bed every morning.

When we talk about (write about, read about) happiness, what we're really talking about is contentment. At least we should be. We may conflate the two (and "happiness" looks better on book jackets), but these aren't interchangeable concepts. "Happy" comes from a Middle English word, "hap," meaning good fortune or good luck. "Content" comes from the Latin "contentus," which means contained or satisfied. In other words, happiness is about isolated events. Contentedness is about the big picture.

Notably, despite the "happiness" headlines generated by the OECD data, it so happens that the report doesn't actually measure it. (It has a category called "life satisfaction" instead — we're No. 14!) Being French, the OECD researchers seem to know that attempting to measure happiness per se would be the quantifying a reductive, almost childlike interpretation of fulfillment. They skipped that nonsense.

Being Americans, we will doubtless use the findings — and our disappointing sixth-place finish overall — to call for happiness initiatives. Perhaps a Skip to Work Day or a resurgence of the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

It's not for nothing that we think it's self-evident that "happiness" and "unalienable right" go together. But, come on, when the Founding Fathers signed off on "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," were they really talking about loving your job or achieving oneness with the universe while doing sun salutations on a bluff overlooking the ocean?

No, they were most likely using the luck and fortune definition. Moreover, they weren't securing our right to happiness as much as granting us permission to spend our lives chasing after it.

And, hey, in that category we're No. 1.

Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her email is mdaum@latimescolumnists.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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