Is Europe really the world’s happiest place?

What criteria are used to evaluate happiness? Indeed what exactly is a good standard for happiness?

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Wed 23 Mar 2022, 11:14 PM

Legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman presented an intensely personal world of Scandinavian angst. In the collective mind, his work became synonymous with a bleak landscape of loneliness, dread and even madness. Also at that time Nordic countries had some of the highest alcohol consumption in the world and troubling suicide rates.

Yet since the turn of the century Scandinavian nations have been named the happiest on the planet. For the fifth year in a row Finland has topped the list, followed by Denmark in second, Iceland in third, and Sweden and Norway in seventh and eighth place, respectively, in the top 10.

Altogether, European countries took the first eight spots in the top tier and 15 of the top 20.

Afghanistan, Lebanon and Zimbabwe were at the bottom of the ranking, a spot war-torn and impoverished countries often take. Data for the report was compiled before the conflict in Ukraine, a nation that is number 98 on the list. Russia is ranked in 60th place.

Some of us who live in Europe, well aware of the fractious European Union and national parliaments, as well as a range of other social interactions and experiences, are scratching our heads a bit over the latest report.

What criteria are used to evaluate happiness? Indeed what exactly is a good standard for happiness? Is it wellbeing, flourishing or thriving? Aristotle called it “eudaimonia” defined as living well and faring well.

After mulling the issue, it becomes clear that the report doesn’t really measure such a subjective state as personal happiness. What it mostly quantifies is respondents’ contentment with a country’s government. The qualitative measure of individual wellbeing has presumably been left up to mental health professionals or religious leaders who rate happiness in their own ways.

The World Happiness Report, which ranks more than 150 countries around the world, is released every year by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network based on data from the Gallup World Poll. On a scale of zero to 10, respondents rate their country according to six main factors — GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption. Those participating form “nationally representative samples for the years 2019-2021”, according to Gallup.

In addition to the rankings, this year’s report also made another discovery: Global growth in acts of kindness measured by the Gallup poll. “Helping strangers, volunteering and donations in 2021 were strongly up in every part of the world, reaching levels almost 25 per cent above their pre-pandemic prevalence,” says John Helliwell, professor at the University of British Columbia and the editor of the World Happiness Report.

Some other good news is that despite the pandemic “positive emotions as a whole remained more than twice as frequent as negative ones”, says Helliwell.

Joining the Nordic countries in the top 20 of this year’s Happiness Index are the European nations of Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic and Belgium. In the number 20 spot is France, which cracked the top 20 for the first time since the compilation began in 2012.

Countries at the very top of the ranking also have universal health care, ample paid vacation time and affordable child care.

What are nations doing right that makes citizens generally happy with their governments? Not surprisingly people are more satisfied with their lives when they have a comfortable standard of living, supportive social networks, good health, the freedom to choose their course in life and a government and business environment with low levels of corruption.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a coauthor of the report, said in 2021 that “we find year after year that life satisfaction is reported to be happiest in the social democracies of northern Europe”.

“People feel secure in those countries, so trust is high,” said Sachs. “The government is seen to be credible and honest, and trust in each other is high.”

Smaller nations appear easier to govern in a way that makes citizens happy. Finland has a population of just 5.5 million people. In the top 10 list of “happiest countries” most have populations below 10 million. The Netherlands is the most populous at 17.4 million.

If you want to emulate the happy Finns keep in mind that it takes a certain mindset. The country has 200 days of winter and two whole months where the sun never rises above the horizon. Temperatures drop to 20 degrees below zero. Perhaps a positive attitude is a must.

So the outside temperature is not what drives emotional comfort or wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be a day at the beach. As they say happiness is an inside job, without question aided by social safety nets that make people secure.

With the world now entering the third year of a pandemic, good cheer is welcome on any front. However flawed any happiness index could be, it is certainly a welcome subject for discussion and ideal to strive for.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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