It is hard to believe. Whatever happened to the idea that the ultimate in happiness was lounging on a tropical beach, umbrella drink in hand, while island music wafted by on a soft ocean breeze? Wait, that was the ideal vacation. What about the ideal life?
Well, the annual happiness report for 2016 is in and there is little that is sunny and warm about the locations that produce the most content people. The top thirteen, in order, are Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Israel, and the U.S.
Don’t believe it? Then let’s ask exactly how this happiness thing is being measured.
This is the fourth such report generated by Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The results are not obtained by just asking people if they are happy. Rather, they come from asking people in 156 countries to evaluate various parts of their lives on a scale from 0 to 10. Lots of variables are examined, but six attributes account for most of the variation among countries. I would sum these up as wealth, health, love, freedom, fairness and kindness. And yes, I could see how those all would contribute to happiness.
(Note that the more precise, but less succinct people who generate the report refer to these as real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity as measured by donations.)
What countries currently have the least happy populations? Starting with the unhappiest, they are Burundi, Syria, Togo, Afghanistan, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, Liberia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Yemen, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. Yes, there are a lot of warm, sunny places in here. More to the point, there are places torn apart by war, struggling with disease, and centers of extreme poverty, so clearly this isn’t really about climate.
Other happy countries include Costa Rica (#14) Mexico (#21) and Panama (#25). Plenty of wonderful beaches in all three places. Meanwhile cold weather hardly guarantees happiness, with Bulgaria coming in at #129, the Ukraine at #123 and #Mongolia at 101.
It is often said that happiness is an inside job, and to some extent that is true. We all know people who can be miserable anywhere, under any circumstances. But on the whole, in aggregate, we humans do respond to our environment. If we are materially comfortable, in good health, surrounded by those we care about and by others we perceive as fair and kind, and if we are free to life our lives as we want, then well, guess what. We are more likely to be happy.
Hot or cold, in sunshine or in snow, those places that are wise enough to make it a priority to foster such an such an environment for all are going to be the best places to live.
(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)