Last week included a holiday and you probably didn’t know it. On March 20th the world celebrated “International Day of Happiness” for the fifth consecutive year. The United Nations adopted a resolution in 2012 to establish the holiday, seeking “a more holistic approach to development” and recognizing “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”. Ladies and gentlemen, the UN is trying to bring more joy to the world.
I’ll admit, the first time I read about a holiday for happy I had to wonder what really goes on behind closed doors. Maybe the UN reps spend their days on Facebook liking/loving posts like the rest of us. Maybe they’re happy and they know it and clapping their hands. Maybe they ask each other “aren’t you glad you use Dial and don’t you wish everyone did?” Then 0ne day someone decided a celebration of all that happiness was in order.
On the other hand, maybe the UN’s daily agenda is so depressing someone insisted 1 out of every 365 days should be set aside just to feel better. A don’t-worry-be-happy moment.
To go together with March 20th, the UN also publishes the “World Happiness Report” (WHR), an annual measure of happy in each of 155 countries. The recipe: the combined measures of income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust (trust defined as absence of corruption in business and government). The WHR then crunches the numbers and tells you how close you are to the happiest place on earth.
Again I had to ask myself – is the UN for real? I mean, I’m usually as merry as the day is long, and I assumed the same was true of my fellow Americans. “Not so fast”, says the WHR.
The 2017 top ten: 1) Norway, 2) Denmark, 3) Iceland, 4) Switzerland, 5) Finland, 6) Netherlands, 7) Canada, 8) New Zealand, 9) Australia, 10) Sweden.
Look at that list again. See any patterns? Five of the ten are the Nordic countries. Another two are in close proximity. Another two are side-by-side way down in the Southern Hemisphere. And finally you have Canada (which feels like a party-crasher). But the ingredients don’t lie – everything’s coming up roses in all ten. The Nords, the Swiss, the Dutch, the Canucks, the Kiwis, and the Aussies are walking on sunshine.
If the happiness formula is to believed, Norway has it all figured out. Consider the following excerpt from the WHR Executive Summary (p. 1): Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices. It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies. To do this successfully requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity, and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway and other top countries where they are in the happiness rankings.
And how about the Americans? We come in at #14. That’s happy-happy-joy-joy compared to most others, but consider this: we’ve never hit the top ten and we’ve been dropping since the first year the WHR was published. The U.S. gets high marks for income and life expectancy but falls short in the other four categories. To add an exclamation point: this year’s WHR includes a chapter by Jeffrey D. Sachs titled “Restoring American Happiness”. As Sachs puts it:
The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis— rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis. (WHR, p. 179)
Take note, Washington D.C.
The World Happiness Report is a 5MB, 188 pg. report available here, if you want all the details on where everything’s coming up roses (or not so much). For me, the message was clear enough from the top ten. If Americans want to live happily ever after, we need to study our neighbors to the north (as do our counterparts in Europe) or delve deeper into life “down under”. Extreme temperatures be damned, all of these people are as happy as clams (at high water) and whistling while they work.
Cheer up, Yanks; it’s not the end of the world (as perhaps it is in #155 Central African Republic). At least the U.S. claims a spot in the top ten percent of the WHR. That’s happy landings on my runway.