Who is the happiest of us all?

April 14, 2018 0 Comments

The answer, of course, is Finland.

Cris Dafis, in this week’s Golwg, reminded us about the World Economic Forum’s recent report on the ‘happiness’ of people living in individual countries.  In this country we still judge national success in traditional, narrowly economistic ways – typically in terms of GDP or economic growth or productivity.  From time to time suggestions are made that we should pay more attention to ‘quality of life’ measures – the latest was by David Cameron in the early, ‘hug a hoodie’ phase of his premiership.  But the idea that we should take happiness seriously as a way of judging our well-being, and therefore our societal aims, never seems to take root.  Probably because our economists are largely conformist and conservative by nature, and because politicians are politicians.

But it’s worth taking a closer look at the 2018 WEF report, produced by the nonconformist economists John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs.  It tells us things why we in this country, for example, feel our condition is so miserable, despite living in what seems to be an enviable state (Britain still lies at the end of the rainbow for many would-be migrants, despite our government’s urgent messages that we’re full, or hostile, or in any case intent on leaving our home continent.)

The WEF, which has published an annual happiness report since 2012, decided on six variables to stand as contributors to a country’s overall happiness.  Two are traditional, long-collected measures, six are based on the results of surveys – subjective assessments by sample citizens.

  • income (Gross Domestic Product per capita)
  • healthy life expectancy at birth
  • social support (answers to the question, ‘If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?’)
  • freedom (answers to the question, ‘Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?’
  • generosity (answers to the question, ‘Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?’)
  • corruption (answers to the questions, ‘Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not?’ and ‘Is corruption widespread within businesses or not?’

The most obvious conclusion to draw from the table of countries, ranked by ‘happiness’, is that the list looks very different from a list of countries by GDP alone.  Above a certain level of GDP – once the basic requirements of living a decent life are met – other factors count for more, meaning that some countries with exceptionally high GDP rank poorly on overall happiness.  So, Costa Rica is a happier country, it seems, than the United States.  Oil-rich middle eastern countries – Qatar is the richest country in the world – score spectacularly badly on happiness.

It’s true that the list is dominated by the Nordic countries, all of them well off.  But their position in the ‘top ten’ is due to their being secure, progressive and socially supportive as much (or more than) because they are rich.

The United States is an interesting case.  Despite its continuing economic success it has slid down the happiness index, and now stands at no. 18 (the UK is at 19).  This is because it scores relatively poorly on social measures; as the authors say, ‘life expectancy has declined, inequality has grown and confidence in the government has fallen’.  They also point out that ‘the US has one of the highest rates of obesity and the highest rate of antidepressant use in the world’.

Curiously the authors make little of wealth inequalities in their commentary on the index, but it’s noticeable that the leading countries from northern Europe are known for their avoidance of the huge differences in wealth common in the US and the UK.  GDP per capita is a very blunt measure, because it masks these differences.  Here and in the US wealth is now so heavily concentrated in a small number of hands that a high GDP score doesn’t mean that most people share a high level of income or wealth.  Jeffrey Sachs does point to the ‘persistent absolute and relative poverty’ of a significant portion of the US population.

National Library of Finland, Helsinki

Commenting on her country’s position as no. 1 in the index, the Finnish Ambassador to the UK said that ‘the most important building blocks for a happy society are democracy, equality, good education and high quality child care, as well as taking care of each other.  These values are very important for Finns. I also think our relationship with nature, and national character, play parts in our happiness’.  Missing from her list is the level of personal wealth.

An obvious criticism of the index is that its choice of social measures is highly selective.  You could think of any number of other factors that might be important to how people feel about their well-being – like trust in politicians and other authorities, or your ability to influence public decisions.  Cris Dafis lists a few of the features of being a Briton (and a Welshman) in 2018 that make him feel dismayed: living in a country with an unelected head of state, and one that considers itself superior to all other countries; that a handful of privileged and wealthy people persuaded others that Britain should abandon our European friends; the disproportionate influence of reactionary newspaper owners; that a single MP can impose a royal name on a major structure without consultation; that Wales and Welsh people can be maligned and belittled by UK media with impunity.

Still, there’s a lot to be said in favour of the WEF’s index.  It reflects people’s experience of living in a society in a way that most economists either ignore or treat as subordinate to traditional methods of measuring well-being.  It also follows the wise words of Aristotle, the grandfather of ‘happiness studies’.  Aristotle understood that ‘eudaimonia’ (well-being, or living well) was not simply a question of wealth or personal happiness, but included a strong social and political element – rational activity towards a worthwhile goal, whether in public life, in work or elsewhere.  Finland, despite its colder climate, might have appealed to him.

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