Money can’t buy you love sang the Beatles already a long time ago, yet these days we are finally beginning to understand the meaning of this yet, interestingly, various research around seems to be far more pre-occupied with who the happiest people on the planet are, rather than trying to understand what makes us happy.

Just back from my holiday in Finland I’m greeted with yet another piece of research (This time from Euromonitor) focusing on happiness and how it is beginning to increasingly pre-occupy both discussions, articles in the media and how, for some reason, the Scandinavians seem to be the happiest people ever. Considering these people live in pretty cold climates with plenty of rain, some snow and darkness for large parts of the day during winter months, we must conclude that at least you can’t blame it on the weather. These are also countries that are relatively rich, have high literacy and work pretty long hours so you can’t put it down to all play and no work either. Moreover, all Scandinavian countries also have high taxes, often the booze is expensive too and they all spend far too much time on the Internet – all supposedly things that  make us depressed, but not the Scandies. What could be their secret? I’ll return to this later.

First to some facts about this emerging research field of happiness levels on a global basis – In June this year, experts gathered at the OECD forum in Istanbul concluded that economic-focused indices of the past, usually based around GDP levels, are no longer sufficient in measurements of social development around the world.

Various approaches have been introduced to try to address this, the most famous perhaps is the United Nation’s Human Development Index. This has been used for many years to calculate a standardised, comparable indicator of social progress, based around the key social components of economics, health and educational opportunity. This itself was an advance on the earlier focus simply on GDP levels. The key statistics are GDP per capita, life expectancy and education (a weighted composite of adult literacy and school enrolments). Many other studies of human well-being around the world are also based on this work.

However, experts in this field have in recent decades confirmed that the key criteria behind happiness change as an economy and society evolve, and that the link in particular between economic success and happiness changes. The latter
connection typically wanes as a country becomes wealthier – creating an income-happiness paradox that is frequently linked to aspiration and comparison, i.e.:

  • The consumers’ ongoing increase in income and
    material success fails to match the wider growth in their expectations as their
    wealth rises;
  • Consumers feel that their own achievements fall
    short of the successes of others in their society (and with today’s mass media,
    comparisons are also perhaps being made internationally).

Another way to approach the tricky subject of happiness is the World Values Survey. This academic-based survey looks into values across world societies, including social, cultural, religious and political aspects. It was launched in Europe in
1981 and its success led to its subsequent expansion into a regular global survey. Individual national surveys are conducted by a network of academics worldwide, each funded locally.

Press reports on the top-line results into “happiness” tend to vary, largely due to the fact that the survey asks two related questions:

  • Taking all things together, would you say you are Very Happy… Not at All Happy”
    (graded response options);
  • “All things being considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole
    these days.” (graded response options).

The latter “satisfaction” questions also relate to a definition known as “subjective well-being,” which some researchers believe is a better indicator of overall happiness than happiness-only questions. Incidentally, another newer survey seeks to build on this approach by adding in an environmental impact element. This is the Happy Planet Index (HPI),
launched in July 2006 by the New Economics Foundation. Another body of work is the World Happiness Database by Ruut Veenhoven at the University of Rotterdam, and furthermore the map of subjective well-being by Adrian White at University of Leicester.

Comparing happiness in societies around the world in such different states of development and with such differing priorities clearly has limitations, but the principal is now gaining credibility amongst even the most fiscally-focused
analysts. In very broad terms, work to date demonstrates that national happiness and well-being levels are generally related to health, income and education, and honest, tolerant government, offering people the opportunity to pursue a way of life of their choice. It is widely agreed, for example, that Denmark and other Scandinavian markets score well on all of these points. Denmark has also incidentally shown good rises in its happiness levels over the past few
decades.

Economic improvement is a factor in less developed economies, but once a minimum standard is reached (probably around the level of the poorest Western European markets) it has a fast diminishing effect; The criteria behind happiness vary by market and over time as aspirations change. Many developing markets are still in the basic material upgrading phase. As is well-known, however, in advanced economies materialism has waned, and in these markets has even been described as a “happiness suppressant”; A just, open government and society show as key factors behind social contentment. Some fast-improving economies generating rapid financial gain for their citizens appear to have happiness levels limited by such issues.

All this research is missing a crucial point though – a human being’s ability to take active charge of your own happiness. Rather than being told that the Danes are the happiest in the world, I would like to know which societies or people are best at coping with adversities.

Invariably we cannot control the things that fate will throw in our way, but I’m always astonished to hear about the stories of how people cope with seemingly impossible situations, how when told they only have a year left to live people emerge from initial depression to extol how much more they enjoy their life now than before. Some attribute it to a realisation of what is important in life and prioritising that, others talk about a self-discipline in terms of not succumbing to anger, jealousy and hatred and instead finding happiness in helping others – these are invariably individual stories with a great capacity to inspire and reminding us how much we ourselves are in charge of our own happiness and how the way we look at the world has an enormous impact in how happy we are. In that respect, the level of material wealth and how fair or just a society is become external factors providing an added bonus, but not the factors explaining happiness as a whole.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton is a good introduction to this topic, pointing to the fact that our likelihood of feeling happy or depressed has a lot to do with the values we aspire to, and how learning associated to growth as individuals, altruism and helping others as well as creative expression have an infinitely greater capacity to provide a foundation to happiness than material wealth or celebrity. So with all this talk about happiness I would like to know how these happiest people on the planet look at these topics, not just the fact whether they are happy or not. I would argue that Scandinavians are great fans of self-actualisation through all these means and it is the wide access to, and opportunities within these areas that drives a great sense of satisfaction, rather than merely economic wealth and a fair justice system although they are very important. So much like any other talent or skill you have – happiness is a skill that needs to be practiced, not only in your outlook on life (refraining from seeing the bad side in everything and always striving to be positive and counting your blessings), but also in your investement in growing yourself as a human being through learning, creative expression and helping others, as well as looking after yourself physically. It’s a balancing act, that only you can master.

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