Happiness and where to find it

18 Sep 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Sep 2020

Pic: Unsplash

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence -Aristotle.

Everyone wants to be happy. Yet until relatively recently the pursuit of formulae to find happiness has been in the dubious realm of the self-help book.

This is beginning to change as more and more governments start to explore the idea that improving the happiness (usually expressed as wellbeing) of a country is every bit as important as its GDP.

A pioneer of happiness research is the distinguished economist Professor David Blanchflower. He’s been plugging away on the economics of happiness for a couple of decades. His first report, published in 1999 quantified the dollar values of life events such as unemployment and divorce. He calculated the value of a lasting marriage at $100,000 a year.

More recently he has been engaged in a series of surveys of happiness across 132 countries. His findings are remarkably consistent. They show a U-shaped happiness curve where people are at their happiest in their late teens, with a major dip in mid-life, which rises again in later middle and older age. In western societies peak unhappiness is at 47.2 years, and 48.2 in the developing world.

This has significant policy implications, in that it suggests that those most at risk of mental health issues are not younger people, as often claimed but those in middle age.

In his latest report, published earlier this year he comments: “The middle-aged have had particular difficulties in adapting in the years of slow growth since the Great Recession [of 2008 and 2009]. The interaction between a nadir for happiness among the middle aged along with a major downturn has had major social, political and health consequences that have reverberated around the world."

Blanchflower’s recent work is concerned with the relationship between age and relative happiness. Others have been engaged in studies that compare happiness across nations.

Since 2011 the UN has produced a World Happiness Report. It’s become a media staple for tabloids and more serious outlets. Everyone loves a table and the idea of comparing your own country or city with another makes for a compelling read.

Yet patterns are emerging, and researchers are beginning to piece together important evidence on what makes a country happy which policy-makers would be foolish to ignore.

In the 2020 report Finland is ranked the happiest country on earth for the third year running with other Nordic countries Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway all making the top ten.

So why is it that these northern nations with their long, dark cold winters have such contented citizens? What do they do that we could replicate here?

The report contains a section which addresses these points.

First it deals with the question of how people who live in a country with such a dismal climae can be happy at all.

“It is true that people account for changes in weather in their evaluations of life satisfaction, with too hot, too cold, and too rainy weather decreasing life satisfaction. However, effect sizes for changes in weather tend to be small, and are complicated by people’s expectations and seasonal patterns.”

Therefore, it concludes, weather is not a factor in either increasing or decreasing Nordic happiness – people are used to it!

It goes on to demolish a myth which is often trundled out in the popular press – that these countries are happy because they are small and homogenous, having low numbers of immigrants.

However there is no research which gives any evidence to support the idea that size of a country has any impact on the happiness of a country – and the statement that these countries have low levels of immigrants is untrue.  For example 19% of Sweden’s population was not born in that country. And the average percentage of immigrants in the top ten nations for happiness is 17.2% more than twice the global average.

Furthermore immigrants to a country tend to have the same levels of happiness as those born there.

The World Happiness Report concludes that the most important explanations as to why Nordic people are so happy “include factors related to the quality of institutions, such as reliable and extensive welfare benefits, low corruption, and well-functioning democracy and state institutions. Furthermore, Nordic citizens experience a high sense of autonomy and freedom, as well as high levels of social trust towards each other, which play an important role in determining life satisfaction.”

These factors tend to reinforce each other in what the report calls a “virtuous circle”

It is hardly surprising that people tend to be happier in countries where there is easy access to relatively generous welfare benefits, and where the labour market is regulated to avoid employee exploitation. But a generous welfare state also builds trust in government and its institutions, reduces inequality and builds trust between individuals and groups of people as well.

For example the ethos of equality which arises from universal public services directly impacts on happiness. So comparing Denmark with the USA researchers find an especially favourable difference for Denmark in terms of the happiness of low income citizens.

Nordic countries also tend to have effective government. The rule of law is upheld, there are very low levels of corruption, regulation of industry and financial and other services is well managed and governments are regarded as effective. The high quality of democracy feeds into citizen satisfaction.

This in turn promotes high levels of social cohesion – Nordic countries also come top in all studies of this measure too.

Add these together and you get the virtuous cycle “where well-functioning and democratic institutions are able to provide citizens extensive benefits and security, so that citizens trust institutions and each other, which leads them to vote for parties that promise to preserve the welfare model.”

The report concludes: “There seems to be no secret sauce specific to Nordic happiness that is unavailable to others. There is rather a more general recipe for creating highly satisfied citizens: Ensure that state institutions are of high quality, non-corrupt, able to deliver what they promise, and generous in taking care of citizens in various adversities.

“Thus, institutionally, building a government that is trustworthy and functions well, and culturally, building a sense of community and unity among the citizens are the most crucial steps towards a society where people are happy.”

If we agree with Aristotle that happiness is the meaning and purpose of life and that therefore governments should optimise it for their citizens, policy-makers elsewhere do not have far to look if they want to make progress.

If happiness and wellbeing for citizens are not the goal of government, then what is, and why?


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