Are you happy? I mean truly happy? The World Happiness Report doesn’t think so.
Released last March, it ranked Finland as the happiest country in the world. Norway came in second, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The United States sat in 18th place, dropping four spots since 2017. The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases the report each year in March, and we Americans now inhabit a gloomy spot.
Of course, we are now in the post-holiday phase of the calendar when things — the weather, our credit card balances, our extra pounds from too many cookies — tend to make us feel as dispirited as Elvis Presley singing “Blue Christmas.” But don’t the fortunate Finns also face these modern day tribulations? After all, in January the sun sets in Helsinki well before 4 p.m.!
In a simple word, “no.” That’s because Finland and these other lands of the Northern Sun excel when it comes to the six factors the U.N. uses to judge happiness: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity.
When one considers our nation’s growing income inequality; the executive branch’s threats to our judicial system and free press; the doubts spread about fair elections and federal law enforcement; the gutting of the Affordable Care Act and the rise in opioid deaths, suicides, obesity and the ranks of the uninsured; and feared cuts to the social safety net, it is easy to see how far this country is from chanting, “We’re No. 1!” It’s as if someone’s conspired to rig our low happiness score.
You may be thinking that the top-ranked countries are so happy because they’re comprised mostly of homogeneous populations and hence have fewer problems of immigrant assimilation. That factor may play a role, but Canada, New Zealand and Australia, nations with a multicultural mix similar to the U.S., ranked seventh, eighth and 10th respectively in the survey. Sweden, another Nordic country, was ninth. Interestingly, top-ranked Finland also had the happiest immigrants — a special focus of 2018’s report.
The conservative minds among us may not like it, but the common factor among the world’s happiest nations was — gasp! — socialism. That’s right. Meik Weiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, ascribes the happiness of Nordic countries to universal healthcare that’s not tied to a job; subsidized kindergarten and free education up to and including the university level; and generous vacation and parental-leave policies. In Denmark, parents get 52 weeks between them after a birth and can even defer 13 weeks for eight to nine years for family emergencies.
Nordic socialism certainly doesn’t flourish under the fluttering flag of the hammer and sickle, but its citizens do pay a steep price for it. Income taxes are in the 45 percent to 50 percent range. Yeah, I know, but what price happiness, peace of mind and quality of life? Besides, what did the recent tax cut really buy for you besides a much-increased national debt? According to USA Today, without the cut, this year’s federal deficit would have dropped to under $600 billion and not risen to nearly $800 billion.
In our often conspiracy-minded, anti-government nation, the next fact is more than interesting. The top-ranked countries also place a good deal of trust in their governments. Weiking offers that this “goes hand in hand with the Nordic countries being at the low end when it comes to corruption, or perceived corruption. We have a different perception of the state … the state protects us from things … there is a notion that if you fall, you will be picked up. So I think we see more the state on our side, and helping us create good conditions for good lives.” Government shutdown, anyone?
Finally, and according to Helen Russell, whose family moved to Denmark from the U.K. when her husband took a job with Lego, Danish happiness can also be ascribed to most people belonging to clubs or community groups; spending a lot of time on fitness and outdoor activities; and not putting too much emphasis on material possessions. I think there are some New Year’s resolutions not so subtly buried in these characteristics.
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Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University's Center for Sustainable Development, believes that. “Governments are increasingly using indicators of happiness to inform their policy-making decisions.” Wouldn’t it be nice to divert our gaze from border walls and the growth of the GDP and focus on an increase in the nation’s happiness and quality of life instead? That’s certainly something to think about when we choose our presidential candidates for 2020.