It’s official, according to the World Happiness Report, Finland is the happiest country in the world. Now that I know that, I’m thinking of moving there because it’s certainly not easy to be happy in the US today. By comparison to Finland, the US came in 18th and really, we have to wonder, with all the violence, racial tension and hatred,it’s a wonder that the US did not come in last.The report ranks countries on six key variables that support “well-being”: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. So with free health care, education, mandatory maternity leave and a slew of other benefits that we in the US can only dream of, is Finland Utopia?
Not if you value material abundance. As an expert put it, “Finns have incredible equality and very little poverty—but they don’t get to buy as much stuff. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development gives the US a 10 when it comes to household income, the highest score, while Finland gets a measly 3.5”. So far it looks like we can agree with the pundit who declared that, “Everybody now knows that we are no happier than we were sixty years ago, despite massive wealth-creation”.
But if happiness cannot be correlated to material wealth, or any other concrete and therefore quantifiable factor, how then can we measure it? Happiness is a thoroughly subjective feeling, an abstraction. Scientists and moral philosophers have been at pains to define it and to ascertain its presence from time immemorial. The founding fathers of the USA, especially Jefferson and Franklin, who as cosmopolites were heavily influenced by the British and French philosophies of the Age of Revolution, believed it was a cornerstone of government and wrote it into the Constitution.And yet how many experiments aimed at increasing the happiness of a society have failed?
From Charles Fourier, the early 19th century visionary who coined the word feminism and declared concern and cooperation to be the basis of a happy and productive society, to the hippie communes that embodied every tenet of non-materialism, hopes have been repeatedly dashed.
Jerry Rubin, the leading figure of the “Chicago Seven” who disrupted the Democratic Convention in 1968 and who went on to personify the anti-materialist philosophy of the counterculture, declared at the end of the 1960s, “I believe in the redistribution of wealth and power in the world.
I believe in universal hospital care for everyone. I believe that we should not have a single homeless person in the richest country in the world….” Yet a few years later he became an entrepreneur, a pioneer investor in Apple,and a millionaire by the early 70s. And the idealistic hippie era was succeeded by the conservative reaction of the 1980s. As so often happens in history, the pendulum of ideology swings from one extreme to the other.
If Finland is a country where reputedly everyone is set up to succeed and people have the greatest chance at attaining happiness, Bhutan is a country that has made its people’s happiness a matter of national policy and indeed, invented the admirable concept of Gross National Happiness as a replacement for Gross National Product. Here too materialism takes a back seat to other more “human and humane” goals. The term “Gross National Happiness” was coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ruled Bhutan until 2006. But it wasn’t until 2008 when the concept caught the attention of the West, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France, commissioned economists to write a report investigating the usefulness of happiness in development indexes. Then in 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution inviting member states to consider measures that could better capture the “pursuit of happiness” in development. The first World Happiness Report was released in 2012.
While we may agree with the notion that materialism does not lead to happiness–and in fact it may hinder the attainment of it—that doesn’t mean that government can successfully formulate policies that may maximize its possibility. To be sure, we can ask if governments have any obligation to insure our happiness at all.The easy answer is that if it was important enough to be written into the Constitution then I suppose we are justified in saying yes, the Founders made an implicit promise to help us to achieve it. The hard question is, how? In fact, there are all sorts of unanswerable questions that we can ask about happiness. What does it take to make you happy? How can we make “everyone” (meaning what? a majority of the population?) happy when its definition is specific to every individual who seeks it?
Even Mr. Ura, the Bhutanese man who developed and implemented the concept of Gross National Happiness, declares himself skeptical, “he acknowledged that questions have arisen about whether a happiness indicator was nothing more than a thought experiment praised in elite academic circles and among wealthy nations.”
In their report on “Wellbeing and the Role of Government” the Institute of Economic Affairs summarized the difficulties of the enterprise. Their very clear conclusions pretty much confirm that Bhutan’s quest for Gross National Happiness truly is more a thought experiment than a realistic goal—at least in all but the poorest countries. From defining what happiness is–“Happiness measures are short-term, transient and shallow measures of people’s genuine wellbeing”–to the involvement of government in promoting it on a societal level, the IEA report confirms what we always suspected, that “… new statistical work suggests that happiness is related to income.”
Yes, in the real world money can buy you at least a certain level of happiness, or if nothing else it can stave off unhappiness. As for governments like Bhutan that attempt to turn the quest for happiness into public policy, the IEA declares that they “have no effective way of determining whether an increase in wellbeing should be traded against justice, moral values or a decrease in freedom. Applying such an overarching principle to the organization of society as a whole is very dangerous.” I guess I better stay in the US at least for the time being.