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.