Almost every morning, this blog highlights problems. It’s usually a downer, I know. (I often tell friends that, sometimes, having the ability to vent regularly is all that keeps me from searching for a glass of hemlock.) But every so often, I’m reminded that we really don’t live in a dystopia, and that lots of folks–including yours truly–are pretty happy most of the time.
Granted, it’s a lot easier to be happy when you are a middle-class privileged person with a nice place to live, enough to eat, and perfect grandchildren. But we all know people who manage to be happy despite life circumstances that are anything but comfortable, raising the question: why? Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for happiness–or at least contentment–while others who appear incredibly fortunate, apparently enjoy being miserable?
Are misery and happiness basically genetic, or is there a role for public policy? Several countries seem to think that policy plays a part.
Several years ago, when my husband and I visited Bhutan, I remember being impressed with that country’s Gross National Happiness Index. So much more humane than the economic measures we favor in our “advanced” country! The United Nations also sponsors a Happiness Index (which usually finds Denmark’s citizens to be the world’s happiest). In 2016 the UAE installed a Minister of State for Happiness. In 2019, New Zealand introduced a wellbeing budget to ensure policies consider citizens’ quality of life.
Happiness has also become the focus of academic study. Some time back, the Guardian ran an article on the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is an independent think tank, founded in 2013 to “look at happiness from a scientific perspective”, by analyzing data to figure out why some folks are happier than others and–more importantly– how societies can boost their citizens’ wellbeing.
The article questioned Meik Wiking (the “happiness guru”), who founded the Institute, about the impact of the pandemic on happiness.
What the pandemic has done is underscore the joy of simple pleasures. The link between happiness and money has been well-documented over the years and while, in general, rich people are happier than poor people, it’s not that money buys happiness but that “being without money” and unable to afford food and shelter causes unhappiness. Once you’ve passed a certain threshold, “if you’re already making good money, and you make £200 extra, you buy a more expensive bottle of wine but it doesn’t matter”….
Covid-19 has also diminished the possibility for social comparisons. “There’s an American saying that ‘A happy man is a man who makes $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband,’ and that concept shows up a lot in the data,” says Wiking. We derive pleasure from being more successful than our neighbours or friends – but become anxious when we’re not. By purging our social media feeds of sparkling shots of Michelin-starred meals and island getaways, the pandemic has reduced angst, envy and fear of missing out.
Genetics clearly plays a role in happiness, as studies of identical twins have demonstrated, and researches have also documented what they call “the natural rhythms of life,” finding a “U curve” in which happiness tends to be highest when we’re young and again when we’re old–or at least, past middle age. Where we live is also important– least-happy countries include war-torn Syria, Burundi and the Central African Republic.
“I don’t think we can go to people in refugee camps and say, ‘Listen guys, happiness is a choice,’” says Wiking. “We need to acknowledge external and genetic conditions and not put the entire responsibility on the individual.”
The happiest 10 countries – the Nordics, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland – are all wealthy, so money matters. But so does policy. Countries with similar GDPs have very different levels of life satisfaction, and some poorer nations, such as Costa Rica, score high.
According to Wiking, a nation’s success at converting “wealth into wellbeing” mostly comes down to its ability to eliminate sources of unhappiness. Denmark’s widespread access to education and healthcare removes anxiety- inducing competitiveness. Wiking says that the Nordic countries are not the happiest in the world – they’re the least unhappy.
What I found when I was doing research for my book God and Country supports Wiking’s thesis. People in countries with strong social safety nets were not only happier than Americans, they were less violent. And of course, if happiness is undermined by comparisons with those who have more than we do, America’s current “gilded age” is a constant “in your face” source of discontent.
Public policies can’t change your DNA. They can’t turn pessimists into optimists or make grief over loss less wrenching. But–as Wiking says–good public policies can make you less unhappy.
And that’s not nothing.