The Happiest Places on Earth

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When was the last time government made you happy?

Earlier this month, the Earth Institute at Columbia University issued the first United Nations' World Happiness Report. As the press release accompanying the report notes.

The happiest countries in the world are all in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Netherlands). Their average life evaluation score is 7.6 on a 0-to-10 scale. The least happy countries are all poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone) with average life evaluation scores of 3.4. But it is not just wealth that makes people happy: Political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries.

The report claims that "just wealth" is not enough to make people happy, citing political freedom, strong social networks, and lack of corruption as prerequisites for happiness. Of course, those same three items are also precisely the prerequisites for the kind of sustained economic growth that produces, well, you know, wealth. 

Why focus on happiness? In part, because of the Easterlin Paradox in which economist Richard Easterlin claimed in the 1970s that data show that there is no link between a society's economic development and its average level of happiness. However, a recent analysis by University of Pennsylvania researchers Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers finds that there is no Easterlin Paradox and that on average people do in fact become happier as they grow richer [PDF]. 

Today the always insightful Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson challenges the idea that governments should seek directly to foster happiness among their citizens. He looks at the happiness rankings of various developed countries: 

On the most comprehensive list, the United States ranks 11th out of 156 countries. Here are the top 10 and their populations: Denmark, 5.6 million; Finland, 5.4 million; Norway, 5 million; Netherlands, 16.7 million; Canada, 34.8 million; Switzerland, 7.9 million; Sweden, 9.5 million; New Zealand, 4.4 million; Australia, 22.9 million; and Ireland, 4.6 million.

All these countries share one common characteristic: They're small in population and, except Canada and Australia, land mass. Small countries enjoy an advantage in the happiness derby. They're more likely to have homogeneous populations with fewer ethnic, religious and geographic conflicts. This minimizes one potentially large source of unhappiness. Among big countries, the United States ranks first.

The irony is that Europe, where the happiness movement is strongest, generally registers lower happiness. On the same ranking, the United Kingdom (18) is the leading large European nation, followed by Spain (22), France (23), Italy (28) and Germany (30).

The high U.S. ranking may reflect national character. "A person who smiles a lot is either a fool or an American," says a Russian adage cited by historian Peter N. Stearns of George Mason University in the Harvard Business Review. 

At the end Samuelson correctly warns:  

Creating an impossible goal, universal happiness, also condemns government to failure. Happiness depends on too much that is uncontrollable. For starters, personality. We all know people who seem blessed — stable marriage, healthy children, successful job — who are restless, grumpy and depressed. Meanwhile, others plagued by misfortune — sickness, shaky finances, family disappointment — persevere and remain upbeat.

Contradictions abound. Freedom, the ability to choose, also is essential to well-being, says the happiness report. But freedom permits people to do self-destructive things that shrink happiness.

The "pursuit of happiness" may be a "right," as the Declaration of Independence says. But the achievement of happiness is not an entitlement. The happiness movement is at best utopian; at worst, it's silly and oppressive.

I'm going with oppressive. Finally, there is wisdom in the old saying that observes: If you think money can't buy happiness, that just means you don't know where to shop. 

NEXT: Matt Welch on Five New Ways the IRS Is Screwing Americans

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  1. Creating an impossible goal, universal happiness, also condemns government to failure.

    Be happy or I’ll fucking kill you!

    1. but we know where the happiest libtoidz place on earth is dont we? say it, SAY IT !!111!1!!

      1. Somalia?

  2. Ever notice that the happiest people are mental retards?

      1. Let me be clear: … life is like a box of chocalates…

        1. A pic of Schumer would work better here.

          1. ok that’s funny

  3. The happiest countries in the world are all in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Netherlands).

    Aren’t those the places with high suicide rates due to lack of sunlight or some other plausible shit like that?

    1. Yes the lack of sun can affect one psychologically.

      Bizarrely, Sweden has a higher suicide rate than Zimbabwe.

      1. That’s just because Zimbabweans aren’t “do it yourselfers”.

        1. I don’t think you need to be when there are so many willing to help.

          1. That’s kinda what I mean. If you’re a suicidal Zimbabwean, just wait a little while. A nice man with an AK-47 will be along shortly to help you out.

    2. Finland’s one of the happiest places on Earth? Finland!? One of the highest alcoholism and suicide rates on the planet? Not sure if they founded it, but they’re the home of death metal for cryin’ out loud.

      The plural of anecdote isn’t data, but the three Finns I’ve met in my life exemplified the words morose and taciturn.

      The study’s definition of happiness must be an interesting one.

      1. And since I brought up Finnish death metal, might as well link to this.

    3. Here are the current world suicide rates. These happy places indeed have higher suicide rates than equatorial countries:

      http://www.who.int/mental_heal….._rates/en/

      What’s up with the old Soviet bloc though? By their rates, you’d think everyone in those countries is subject to endless screenings of “Fiddler on the Roof”.

      Surprising amount of hara-kiri in Japan and Korea.

  4. Being happy isn’t necessarily all it’s cooked up to be.

    If I told people I rejected Hedonism, Epicureanism and Utilitarianism as all being incomplete in some fundamental way, I probably wouldn’t get much of an argument.

    But if I told them that being happy wasn’t necessarily the only important thing in life, for some reason, a lot of people think that’s a terrible thing to say.

    1. What’s more important? The unfettered ability to accumulate material wealth for an elite few?

      This post is too funny. Turns out strong social welfare states don’t equate to widespread misery, but actually correlate to high levels of happiness.

      Thus, meh happiness isn’t all that important.

      1. What’s more important? The unfettered ability to accumulate material wealth for an elite few?

        Yeah, those are exactly the two choices.

        Accumulating wealth for the elite few or scoring high on some scrotex’s idea of a happiness test.

        Turns out strong social welfare states don’t equate to widespread misery, but actually correlate to high levels of happiness.

        I wouldn’t be happy paying all those taxes. If you think forcing people to pay high taxes against their will makes them happy, yer outta yer mind.

        Certainly, just because the Scandies are happy that way, doesn’t mean we would be.

        1. Members of some societies happily pay high taxes because the payoff is they get the services those taxes pay for. For example, nobody has to worry about going bankrupt from medical or higher education expenses.

          Perhaps this goes with an ethos that differs somewhat from the mindless accumulation of wealth that dominates in America. But perhaps that American outlook is fed by the relative lack of economic security.

          At any rate, people should be free to accept–or reject–such an arrangement via the democratic process.

          1. $

          2. I see how things I am forced to pay for are abused by people that don’t pay for them, making these things less useful to myself (higher education, health, public infrastructure), which proves the illegitimacy of democracy, and as a result I am very unhappy with the situation.

            1. So which form of authoritarianism do you prefer to democracy?

              1. $

              2. In order of preference:

                1. Me in charge.
                2. Constitutional republic that firmly establishes protection of individual liberty (more so than current constitution)
                3. Fucking anarchy.

          3. Obviously, we need a maximum wage, and prison time for anyone who accumulates over X amount of dollars or X amount of “stuff”.

            /snark

          4. Members of some societies happily force other people they don’t have to look in the face to pay high taxes because the payoff is they get the services those taxes pay for.

            Fixed.

            1. Why should anti-tax minorities get their way and pro-tax majorities not? Because they’re just right?

              1. $

          5. “At any rate, people should be free to accept–or reject–such an arrangement via the democratic process.”

            And what about the 49% who disagree with what the “democratic process” decides? That’s the question that you always ignore.

            1. They should do better next time.

              Sorry you have to live among other human beings, meaning, by necessity, you won’t always get your way.

              Convincing just 2% to switch shouldn’t be that hard.

              1. And when the 51% is actually 20% that controls the vote “counting?” Or the 51% decides that those “undesirables” in the other half need to be culled to make the world a better place?

                1. Well then obviously they should do better next time.

                  It’s exactly what Tony would have said to the Jews.

                  (Yes I did just Godwin the fuck out of it.)

      2. Turns out strong social welfare states don’t equate to widespread misery, but actually correlate to high levels of something the United Nations has determined constitutes happiness.

        Fixed.

        1. happiness = free shit

      3. Go kill yourself you communist fuck. Try sticking your head in an oven…an electric oven.

        1. I believe in slightly more government intervention in the economy than you do. That either makes us both communists or you an idiot.

            1. Oh great, the monkeys have learned to imitate one another. Can’t wait for John to show up and call me a sockpuppet. What I wouldn’t give for some occasional originality and wit in your insults.

              Or you could at least be honest: He makes too much sense and doesn’t agree with me… shun him!!

              1. $

              2. Or you could at least be honest: He makes too much sense foolishly fellates fallacies and doesn’t agree with me argues in bad faith… shun ignore him!!

                ftfy

                $

                1. For some reason whenever I read a “T o n y” post I always imagine it in a whiny Sally Struther-esque voice with a lisp.

                  1. “slightly more”

                    We have enough of that socialist bullshit already. Who other than insane people, would want more?

                2. So ignore me.

                  1. That’s just the kind of non-answer we expect from you.

          1. Someone needs to make the point, too, that a more socialistic country would probably be a lot less tolerant of diversity.

            Show me socialist country, and I’ll show you a country that probably doesn’t tolerate much in the way of diversity.

            If you think immigrating to the U.S. is hard, try immigrating to Sweden. …hell, they’ve even sent Christian Iraqi asylum seekers back to Iraq.

            It’s like they’re attitude is: we’re a really tolerant society, okay? And we’re not about to tolerate anyone in our midst who might screw that tolerance up–got it!?

            The more people are made to pay for each other, the more picky they get about who they’re paying for–I’m not saying that’s the way it should be; I’m saying that’s the way it is.

            The United States is too diverse a nation to be a socialist country like that. The more socialistic we become, the less tolerant of diversity we would become, too.

            If Sweden or oil rich (20% of GDP) Norway were as diverse as the United States, I seriously doubt they would be anywhere near as socialistic as they are now.

      4. Tony w/spaces, you are the worst sockpuppet ever.

  5. A happy wife is a happy life.

    1. at least until that time of month when its all ur fault again…& again

  6. Assuming I had no principles, I’d be extremely happy letting other people pay me to layabout.

    1. You could have principles and still be perfectly happy doing that. For example, you could be a utilitarian or a child rapist.

      1. True, my principles aren’t universal. The supposed obviousness of natural rights is one of the reason the Constitution has been so twisted and torn.

    2. This has really bothered me, I know more than one guy who does not work and does not want to work, they play computer games or watch tv most of the time, they seem generally happy. The days when I come late from work and then think how part of that work supports these guys, is not a happy thought. Perhaps having no principles is the path to happiness.

      1. Unfortunately, that’s a path to personal and national disaster.

        1. Anybody else ever read Leigh Brackett’s Skaith trilogy? I keep thinking we’re getting close to a society like she described for Skaith, where a minority of workers were effectively in peonage to provide the welfare state for the rest.

      2. The days when I come late from work and then think how part of that work supports these guys, is not a happy thought.

        I’ve found that maintaining a positive attitude even in the face of this may not be easy but certainly makes for a more healthy lifestyle. Nobody needs the ulcers.

    3. Assuming I had no principles, I’d be extremely happy letting other people pay me to layabout.

      http://mises.org/daily/905

      We can conclude from this that of the [Danish] people in the working age of 18 to 66, more than one quarter live passively on government transfers (full time). For every 100 persons employed full time in 1999, there were 33 working-age people receiving support. Adding pensioners, the total number was 61 people on full time transfer income for each 100 full time employed persons. (The pensioners are financed by a pay-as-you-go pension scheme). And out of those who are employed, 31.5 percent work for the government.

  7. What about Bhutan and its Gross Domestic Happiness?

    1. Saw an article about all of the Bhutanese religious refugees and how they’re adjusting to life in the United States, which isn’t often mentioned when discussing Gross Domestic Happiness.

  8. I agree with the idea that more homogenous societies are more stable and suffer less problems like lack of trust, but ultimately happiness is a choice. No study can ever tell you whether you are happy or not.

    1. Judging by this response and according to our handy Happiness Chart, there is a 74.25% chance that you are not happy.

  9. If Norway is one of the happiest places on earth, why do you have a guy there that kills all those children.

    1. breivik was NOT happy w standard mags available in norway so he mail-ordered extended mags from the US and he was all-happy again.

    2. He was part of the Happiness Committee when they determined what was making most people unhappy. He just wanted to bring up the Happiness Index.

  10. Oh look, another retarded “study” that measures something ethereal and is based solely on the definitions of the “researchers”. Can we have a study on how many retarded studies get made?

    1. I think this study is yet more evidence that social “sciences” are 100% bullshit.

      1. Subjective study is subjective.

        1. All the choices we have here make us anxious and therefore unhappy. The Netherlands for the WIN because and Aldi is all you will ever need.

          1. Pretty sure ‘an’ has no ‘d’ on the end, but to be on the safe side, you can never add too many extra letters.

  11. The “pursuit of happiness” may be a “right,” as the Declaration of Independence says. But the achievement of happiness is not an entitlement.

    Occutard: Its not?! That not what my college soshyologie profs sed! GIMME MOAR FREE STUFFZ DAMIT! I DESERV 2 B HAPPIE!!!111!!!!!!!11

    /sarc

    1. Facebook user: Happiness is real? I thot that was just in movies.

      1. Aura is real too, mkay?

  12. When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
    -Bastiat

  13. I would prefer govn goals to be protecting our lives and enabling our happiness rather than a different goal like saving our souls.

    If our main goal is to improve GNP then we are implicitly thinking that’s the thing that will make us happy. Most readers of this site think having the government do less makes folks happier, but that’s still looking through a lens of which policies create the most happiness (which is appropriate). So if not happiness, what should be the goal of our policies?

    1. Increase freedom.

      1. Some people think freedom means free shit.
        This leaves you free to seek out those things at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of needs, because the basics are covered by government.

        I think you mean liberty, not freedom.

        1. I know that freedom nowadays means getting free stuff, I however refuse to accept that new definition.

      2. Increase freedom because increased freedom leads to more happiness or because freedom is an end to itself?

        I assume you don’t want unlimited freedom aka anarchy?

        1. Around here, it’s never safe to make that assumption, Stan.

        2. Why would you make that assumption?

        3. I would take it over this shit.

          1. Well good luck with that. I hear things got pretty free and awesome when the Romans decamped Britain.

            1. I’ll bet things got really nasty once the Twitter war died down. I imagine every Brit was on his/her cellphone calling friends to organize their mobs. Maybe a quick check of the TV to see where the looting was already the heaviest.

          2. Anarchy might last for a little while, but the natural order of human society is for there to be a group with the monopoly on violence.

            They then offer “protection” for a non-negotiable fee, which they collect using their monopoly on force. After all, who will protect you from the protectors?

            As fucked up as our government of today is, I’m quite certain it is more pleasant than the winner of the competition for the monopoly on violence that would emerge from a brief period of anarchy.

            1. As ably demonstrated in “Escape from New York”.

            2. “The natural order” will be a fitting fuck you to the way shit is now and everyone that enabled it. If disorder is down the pipeline, I will enjoy it.

    2. Stop making policies.

  14. “The report claims that “just wealth” is not enough to make people happy, citing political freedom, strong social networks, and lack of corruption as prerequisites for happiness.”

    Wealth is not those things?

  15. When the European Union finally settles on a single continental government, they should establish a Ministry of Happiness. That will fix things.

    1. This man was arrested for being in too many bad moods.

  16. “But it is not just wealth that makes people happy: Political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries.”
    What cockamamamie analysis. Obviously the most important thing to happiness is lots and lots of porn. these countries are notorious for their porn. Even Finland with “Tom of Finland” – notice the oblique referenece to “top” and “bottom” countires?
    wink wink, nudge nudge….

  17. “The happiest countries in the world are all in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Netherlands).”

    They also happen to be some of the whitest countries in the world.

    1. Well, someone getting asked is skewering the results downward for America, and we all know who that is don’t we?

      1. November 6, 2012:

        Michelle Obama: “Wait. We won. Yayyy!!! Now with the election behind us and we are free of any constraints, I’ll just go ahead and say what I feel. For the SECOND time in my life, I’m proud to be an American. America, fuck yeah!”

        Bank money on it.

    2. That’s it. We need a worldwide study to find out how happiness correlates to skin color.

      1. More useful would be a study of how/whether skin color correlates to “political freedom, strong social networks, and lack of corruption.”

        1. To be fair, urban democratic political machines were thoroughly corrupted nearly a century before blacks had any political power to effect them.

    3. Relatively unhappy Germany has the same white/other ratio as the Netherlands. Try again, Derb.

      1. But, they’re Germans, you see. Angst is the national pastime.

        1. They even have a word for it.

  18. Small countries enjoy an advantage in the happiness derby. They’re more likely to have homogeneous populations with fewer ethnic, religious and geographic conflicts.

    Riiiiiight. Because Ireland has been so free of religious conflicts.

    1. Well, Iran sure has been free of religious conflicts. And the Iranians are always dancing in the streets. At least, they’re doing something in the streets.

      1. If by “free of religious conflicts” you mean, “anyone who publicly casts doubt on Islam can be murdered by the government theocrats”, then sure.

    2. They also happen to Irish.

  19. OT: Crysis 3 is looking sexy —

    http://www.bluesnews.com/scree…..ding.shtml

  20. I’d really like to know how the happiness of each country was determined. Suicide rates were obviously not considered.

    My suspicion is that they looked at things like wealth, social systems, education, all those things the United Nations generally likes.

    1. I would think that suicide is so uncommon anywhere that the rate variation would have little effect on the overall “happy quotient”. Or something.

  21. I thought happiness was a warm gun?

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