The World Happiness Report 2013 has just been published, following a recent conference on happiness. The report defines the need for policy makers to make happiness a significant measure and aim for growth and progress. The Report, based on data compiled in a Gallup poll, consisted of a ranking of 156 different nations around the globe, by virtue of their well-being and state of happiness. The top 5 happiest nations in the ranking fell to northern European countries, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden, respectively.
The US still came in fairly high, at 17, while the UK came in lower, at 22. But it appears from research, that the key to the top 5 countries’ happiness has less to do with acquiring money and materialism and more to do with love and dependability of someone close, general and social support and good health practices as a route to well-being and progress. Where the northern European nations, along with many other so-called western nations came out on a higher ranking, by contrast, it was the Sub-Saharan countries, mainly in Africa, that came out at the bottom. Other countries that suffered a reduction in support were also found to be in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
The Report, that comes in good time for the United Nations General Assembly in a fortnight, was the United Nations General Assembly’s second World Happiness Report, measuring not only well-being itself, but more a focus on analyzing its contributory factors. It was created by principal specialists in their fields in economics, survey analysis, national statistics and psychology, among others and gauges how various extents of well-being can be used to good effect in the progress of other nations.
To gain more of an insight into what makes the top 5 countries so happy would require a little research into what has been reported on their happiness and what, perhaps we could learn from their lifestyle attitudes:
Denmark (Rank: 7,693)
Denmark was ranked highest in the poll and has remained on top since 1973, when the European Commission set up a “Eurobarometer,” to establish what issues affect its citizens. Economics professor, Christian Bjornskov, who wrote about happiness for his PhD, said that what makes Danes so happy is the fact that they are so trusting of people they do not know. He goes on to say that trust in and of itself makes a person happy and that Danish people have a vested interest in making changes to situations that they do not like. Dr. Bjornskov said:
“The great thing about Danish society is that it doesn’t judge other people’s lives. It allows them to choose the kind of life they want to live, which is sometimes not always possible in other countries, so this helps add to the overall satisfaction of people living here.”
The professor continued that money is not such a huge issue as social life is to Danes. Using the US and UK as examples, he suggested that Danish people do not tend to make huge spends on large homes and cars, rather, they would prefer to spend their money on socializing with friends.
In October 2009, Oprah Winfrey travelled to Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, to gain support for Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games. What she found was one of the happiest places on earth, according to her website.
Oprah met up with Nanna Norup, a female inhabitant of Copenhagen, to find out why her fellow country folk were top ranking in the happiness poll. On first glimpse of the city, one can immediately notice its environmentally conscious state, as a vast percentage of its inhabitants make their way around by bicycle, hauling their groceries and little offspring with them. Unlike other major cities in the West, unemployment and homelessness is pretty low. According to Nanna, on losing a job, the Danish government will come to the citizens’ support, by paying up to ninety percent of their wages for four years. Healthcare, like the UK, is also free for all.
Nanna spoke of how mothers are well taken care of by the government, as they receive 6-12 months of paid maternity leave and how students even get paid to go to University. Nanna went on:
“You get paid $400 or $500… you have free education. Then you have healthy, well-educated people in the world. What could beat that?”
On top of that, there are no added social pressures to get married. Nanna, then 44 years of age and single, said that she never grew up with the wedding dream that so many young girls today fantasize and create scrapbooks about. Not even her friends had that dream. She talked of a friend of hers, who had three kids with her partner before they decided to tie the knot, without the pressure.
Without bowing to social pressure, moral judgment and with social support from surrounding oneself with good friends, it is no wonder that Denmark has come out on top for the past three decades. It seems also that the government is really listening to its people, not the other way around.
Norway (Rank: 7,655)
One of the key factors that seem to make Norwegians so happy is its egalitarian society, according to a report by Norwegian correspondent, Lars Bevanger, from the BBC.
Bevanger said that the welfare state of Norway was developed as such ever since the Second World War. He went on that after so many years of German occupation, the country was keen to avoid any further divisions, hence the egalitarian factor. Few Norwegians are said to be extremely rich. In fact, it is reportedly frowned upon. But even fewer are living in desperate poverty.
With regard to pay, there appears to be little difference in the amount of take home pay from a bus driver to a doctor. Both are reported to earn around the equivalent of $3,137.80 per month.
Where the cost of living is considered pretty high, with a beer costing around $7.84 a glass, you might find yourself wondering how you were going to pay for the pizza to go with it. Also, where we consider the price of salmon to be pretty high, Norway is the capital of salmon farming, so salmon is eaten is plentiful amounts and bought very cheaply as a result.
On the other side of the coin, pension schemes, private health insurance and private schooling are things that Norwegians do not have to fork out for. There are very few private schools as public schools have an excellent reputation, while for most, state pensions will suffice.
The life expectancy of Norwegians is also high, as an English doctor discovered when she went to work in Norway. She said that the octogenarians who come in to see her, only do so as a matter of course, for a general check up. The doctor said how she rarely finds anything wrong with the health of the octogenarians, who seem quite impatient, she says, to get back out on their daily cross-country skiing run.
Again, here we see a prime example of healthy living – an excellent diet of fresh salmon, fresh air and exercise, social support and not trying to live beyond one’s means, which only adds to pressure and stress, further deteriorating into poor health and unhappiness.
Switzerland (Rank: 7,650)
An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Better Life Index Report on Switzerland indicated that the average Swiss household’s income is approximately US $30,060 per annum, which is higher than the OECD average of US $23,047 per year. Nearly 80 percent of the population aged between 15 and 64 are in paid employment, again above the OECD average of 66 percent.
Switzerland is also considered to be a top performing country where its education system is concerned, with also a life expectancy of around 83 years. This is 3 years higher than the OECD average of 80 years. The nation’s water quality performs better than average and 95 percent of the population are also reported to be satisfied with its supply.
In general, 82 percent of the Swiss population have more positive experiences in an average day, with a sense of rest, pride in accomplishment and enjoyment, according to the OECD report, as opposed to negative experiences of pain, worry, sadness and boredom.
Contrary to Norway’s egalitarian values, the low taxation system is Switzerland, with more liberal values are said to have a direct correlation with the happiness of the country.
It has also been argued by Professor of Economics, Dr Scott Sumner in his blog The Money Illusion, that there is a powerful relationship between direct democracy and happiness in Switzerland. He hypothesizes that direct democracy leads to: “greater responsiveness to voter preferences; lower levels of government expenditure, except in education; public services being provided at lower costs and higher per capita income.”
On the other hand, it could also be the sense of national pride that makes the country as a whole a happy nation, from its efficiently running public transport to the tax-free banking and the fact that Switzerland opted out of joining the European Union. They do pay money into the Union and share the common market, but they do not have a say on how things are run. They do however maintain their own independence, which is bound to render any nation happy. Switzerland is the cleanest country I have ever been to and reports have stated that it is one of the safest and best run countries in the world.
Netherlands (Rank: 7,512)
Happiness in Holland appears to stem from childhood. Reports suggest that it comes top of the league table for child well-being across 21 industrialized countries, according to a table published by Unicef.
Professor of developmental psychology, Paul Vangeert, states that society in the Netherlands has always been focused on its children, particularly the young. He goes on that the Netherlands is rich, in terms of its health, income and education. Its state of well-being comes from the way in which parents have a good relationship with their children, as well as the fact that there is less pressure placed on children at school. Dr Vangeert told the BBC:
“If you take the percentage of young mothers in the labour force, it’s not very high in comparison to comparable countries. There is a stronger tendency for mothers to raise children or take a long time off work after children are born.”
He adds that children in the Netherlands are more used to a “highly protective caring environment.” Families tend to be more open and communicative and parents and children can talk about pretty much anything.
In many cases, mothers have stayed at home while the father went out to work, giving the child more of a sense of stability in himself or herself. Further, because of the relaxed attitude in child rearing, issues that other societies may make out to be a big deal do not come as such a big deal to many Dutch parents.
The Dutch are also known for their liberal approaches to sex, drugs and alcohol. A teenager from Amsterdam agreed that as it is legal to do most of these things from aged 16, there is nothing to provoke parents with, making it less interesting and therefore less of a big deal. She told of the pressures that other teenagers from the UK are under, with matters of maintaining their virginity.
The level of education is also high, making job prospects, which are reportedly plentiful, easier to attain.
Dr Rutt Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human conditions at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, suggested that it appears to be a perpetual cycle, as “happy adults raise happy children.”
Sweden (Rank: 7,480)
If Sweden is such an expensive country, as it appears that many northern European countries seem to be, then why are they so happy? The cost of living is high, salaries are said to be low and alcohol apparently costs more than gold, although they do like a drink. But is this not the same again for many other neighbouring nations?
The upside is that the main class system which seems to be in existence is one large middle class. Yet, according to Canadian author Joel Marsh, who has been living in the country for nearly a decade, the average Swede makes more money than the average North American and with two parents in the household out at work, there is no shortage of money.
However, it has been said, and I have heard this myself, that Swedes have a dislike of those who flaunt their money and consume to excess. Where they pay high taxes, they also receive a good healthcare system, free University education and plenty of social programs and job opportunities.
Whilst in work, those with children are entitled to 5 weeks paid holiday, where they tend to spend a lot of time with their children, out in the open and away from the cities.
Another father has told of how he has received one year of paid paternal leave for each of his two children, which is so valuable to keeping a family close, so as not to miss out on their formative years, as many fathers unfortunately do. With so many pressures in other societies, some have to work all the hours provided to keep from going under, or worse still, to keep the bailiffs from the door.
With excellent healthcare, free education and great work force systems, as well as paid leave, it is easy to see why people feel privileged to inhabit such a country.
Could this be where some of us are going wrong? Is this why some of us are not as happy as we could be? It seems that the more we want, the more we yet have to sacrifice. I don’t mean that in the obvious sense. Are we sacrificing our freedom, our sense of well-being and happiness? Are we on a slippery slope, the downside of which affects not only our physical, but also our mental health? What can we do to alleviate the pressures we now find ourselves under today?
It comes as no surprise that as a society, the West seems to be turning more and more toward the East, in terms of some of the many holistic therapies it has to offer, as a way to counter the stresses that come with living in a high-pressured, consumer-driven culture. Meanwhile, with the rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the economy is booming and so is consumerism and commerce. Will we be swapping places? Can we all eventually find or return to the state of well-being and happiness that the top 5 northern European countries have and still seem to maintain?
Written by: Brucella Newman