Get happy: A world ranking that shifts the measure of success

Decoding the World Happiness Report

WASHINGTON, D.C. - To paraphrase the advice Horace Greeley gave America’s youth in 1865, “Go to Iceland, young man, go to Iceland…”

Iceland? Why?

Because Iceland just might be the best place on earth to get happy. That’s according to the World Happiness Report 2015. Switzerland is actually ranked number one, but I’ll argue it has an unfair advantage and Iceland really is tops (more on that later).

The first World Happiness Report was issued in 2012. It is not a document to be taken too literally; it does not claim to measure empirically the sum total of good moods in the world’s sovereign states. The point of the project is to push the idea that measuring and comparing countries simply by the size their GDP’s and armies misses the point of, well, life.

The 2015 report is produced through the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Three scholars, one from Canada, one from Britain and an American, the economist Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University, edit the report.

Measuring well-being instead of return on invest may sound touchy-feely, but it actually is a return to how philosophers used to judge the virtues of a society. Aristotle, for one, said the state’s purpose was to cultivate eudaimonia, the activity of living well by pursuing rational and virtuous activities.

Shifting the metrics of national success from purely economic statistics to the more mushy data of well-being was made famous when Bhutan invented an index of Gross National Happiness. The World Happiness Report is trying to build on that to demonstrate “the fruitfulness of using happiness measurements for guiding policy making and for helping to assess the overall well-being in each society.”

So with no further ado, here are the happiest countries based on data for 2012-2014:

Top Ten 2012-2014

Switzerland

Iceland

Denmark

Norway

Canada

Finland

Netherlands

Sweden

New Zealand

Australia

Basically, cold, wealthy countries with ample natural resources score big. The disturbing part is that racially homogeneous countries mark higher than multicultural societies. The world is getting more multicultural and even Scandavia might, some day.

So why do I rank Iceland ahead of Switzerland? Easy, Switzerland is a country born with a silver spoon while Iceland is a tough orphan.

First, Switzerland is filthy rich because its supposed neutrality has enabled the Swiss to skim off the world’s shady and tax avoiding transactions for ages and ages. Second, Iceland is partly in the Artic Circle; it is cold and dark through an endless winter, isolated and rugged. Shangri-La it is not.  (If you make it there, you can make it anywhere.) Third, and most important, Iceland is resilient.

In the Great Recession, Iceland’s banking system “suffered decimation of their banking systems as extreme as anywhere” but bounced back better than anywhere. They know something there the rest of us don’t.

Here is the bottom of the list:

Bottom Ten, 2012-2014

Togo

Burundi

Syria

Benin

Rwanda

Afghanistan

Burkina Faso

Ivory Coast

Guinea

Chad

No surprises here, either: war, famine, terrorism and dire poverty. But there are plenty of counterintuitive rankings. Wealthy Kuwait and Japan rank below Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay, for example.

The report weighs six key variables: GDP per capita; healthy year of life expectancy; social support (number of people one says they can “count on”); trust in government and business institutions; perceived freedom to make life decisions; generosity (levels of volunteering or giving, for example).   

Health, income and social support are the most important variables; social support is perhaps the most important, as dips in economic numbers effect well-being much less in places where social support is higher.

There’s a fascinating chapter on “The Neuroscience of Happiness.” The authors locate four key elements to the pursuit of happiness in us featherless bi-peds: “sustained positive emotion” (makes sense); recovery from negative emotion; empathy or “pro-social” activity; and time spent in “mindfulness,” "affective stickiness” or what is also called “flow” – activities that immerse you and make time fly.

The good news for those of us who face what millennials call “first world problems” is that the four key happiness variables are “plastic,” that is, they can be willfully altered. A person can increase “pro-social” behavior or learn how to better bounce back from setbacks – like the Icelanders.

For the rest of the world, the authors hope to sway international policymakers at institutions such as the U.N. and the World Bank that the cost and benefits the bean counters measure aren’t the most important beans.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Justices feel the weight of history in considering same-sex marriage case]

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