The Happiest Countries in the World Are Not the Ones You Think Of
Tl;dr: Happiness should be measured in terms of emotional substance and relationship quality. Not in terms of purchasing power.
According to this recurring survey, the happiest countries in the world are located in Scandinavia, Oceania, and Central Europe.
You know the ones I mean. Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Australia, and New Zealand.
However, a quick visit to any of these countries will quickly make you understand that people living there, are not happy. They rarely smile, rarely laugh, don’t hug, and stand 3 meters away from each other.
What the survey calls “happiness” isn’t happiness. It is some sort of HDI.
HDI means Human Development Index. It measures and computes education, GDP, and life expectancy to create some sort of “life quality index”.
What the study measures is not “how happy are you”, but “how comfy are you?”
That is completely different.
We tend to confuse happiness and “comfortability” because we identify happiness with consumerism and material abundance. Yet these are completely different things.
It was proven multiple times that consumption DOES NOT increase happiness in the long term (but may inhibit it).
What Is Happiness?
What makes people smile, have a good time, and be happy?
Let’s ask Harvard.
In 2015, Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, appeared at a TEDx event to give the results of a 75 years-long study on happiness conducted by Harvard.
During 75 years, four generations of scientists studied the lives of subjects from different social classes and backgrounds.
At the end of the study, one single variable on happiness came out: good relationships.
Good relationships make us healthier and live longer while loneliness, on the opposite, kills us.
So, I had a look at the most individualistic countries in the world, namely: USA; Australia; UK; Netherlands; New Zealand; Italy; Belgium; Denmark; France; Sweden.
Well, the thing is that individualism does not de facto mean loneliness while social contact does not mean social fulfillment either.
As rightly mentioned by Waldinger, you can be lonely in a marriage, and you can be happy in an individualistic society.
So I had a look at studies measuring loneliness directly.
For example, this study indicates that 18% of Europeans are in social isolation while 7% feel frequently lonely.
Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden are countries where people feel less lonely while Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, France, and Greece have a 10% loneliness indicator.
This study though, performed by another EU organization, pretends the opposite: Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Latvia are countries where people experience the highest level of loneliness, while Finland, Slovakia, Sweden, and Hungary have a lower percentage of lonely people.
Maybe instead of asking people how lonely they are, we should ask them how happy they have felt lately?
That was the object of this study. Why measuring economic capital to measure happiness when you can measure happiness directly?
Respondents were asked 5 questions on their experience of enjoyment, the respect they are getting in everyday life, whether they feel well-rested, if they laughed or smiled recently, and finally, if they did or learned something interesting lately.
Here are the countries that scored the highest on the list: 1. Panama 2. Paraguay 3. El Salvador 4. Venezuela 5. Trinidad and Tobago 6. Thailand 7. Guatemala 8. Philippines 9. Ecuador 10. Costa Rica. Mind that the study was made in 2012, but somehow, my personal experiences with people tend to favor more the results of this study than the others.
The Bottom Line
There is no such thing as the happiest countries in the world. Happiness remains a subjective matter.
Maybe it takes less for a Danish to feel happy than for an American, who knows?
Your happiness in your own life is what you make out of it.
You could go to Finland and have no friends there and feel lonely.
Or you could go to Russia, meet the love of your life, have a great group of friends, and feel happy.
Eventually, I believe that the happiness of populations depends a lot on the population’s social skills and culture, which are themselves linked to a wide number of variables beyond the scope of this article.
Yet, while I don’t believe in the happiest countries, I very much do believe that there are sad countries: war, persecution, high level of corruption, impossibility to move up in the social structure, difficulty to take initiatives…are characteristics that drive people crazy.
As such, Guyana, Lesotho, Russia, Lithuania, Suriname, Ivory Coast, Kazhakstan, Equatorial Guinea, Belarus, and South Korea are the countries that top the list in the number of suicides per inhabitant each year.
To conclude, don’t be fooled by the “happiest countries” rankings.
Happiness is a very subjective and changing state.
Comparing happiness levels between countries is like comparing vegans and carnivores: everyone does what they believe to be best for them.
The society built by the Swedish for the Swedish ranks high because it fits well Swedish preferences.
Yet it doesn’t mean that it would fit Chileans or Indonesians.
What would fit Chileans best is the current Chilean society with some minor changes that only Chileans can decide.
What this whole happiness survey measures, eventually, is how well society fits people that inhabit it.
It’s about the “fittest”, not the “happiest”.
And at that game, Scandinavians seem to be the best.