Mental Health

Can Societies Engineer Happy?

Part 1 of a 3 Part Series on Happiness

Michael Decker

5 minute read

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Declaration of Independence

Happiness – what is it. While the answer you might offer is as varied as the individuals bound to offer it, your response will probably include notions of fulfilment, contentment, mental calm, and financial well-being. In westernized countries, and the US, especially, people are not ecstatic, that is for sure. Certainly the pandemic, economic uncertainty, concerns about climate, political strife, and the great cultural shift in which we find ourselves has a lot to do with the feeling of unease that many currently have. Unease, of course, is not unhappiness, but stress certainly plays a role in how happy people feel.

What is happiness? Psychologist Sonja Lyubomisky, in her book The How of Happiness, defined it as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” 

It turns out that Americans are not the happiest of people. According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, the United States ranks 18th in the world from 153 countries studied, behind most of the Nordic nations, and behind small nations like Luxembourg, Israel, and Costa Rica. The authors of the World Happiness Report rely on self-reported, individually subjective responses to questions regarding well-being.

The authors of the study are economists, and it is well known that economists love to quantify anything and everything. It is unsurprising, then, that they have assigned values to core elements which contribute to happiness as a measurable thing, albeit in a Eurocentric manner and with the usual caveats that identification and measuring such nebulous, culturally valent concepts is bound to be problematic. 

The following six key factors underpinned the study of differences in happiness:

  • GDP per capita
  • Social support
  • Healthy life expectancy at birth
  • Freedom to make life choices
  • Generosity
  • Perception of corruption

These categories obviously defy precise measurement but it is hard to argue against their value. GDP per capita, for example, allows for a rough and ready view of both material living standards and inequality, the latter which the authors focus on at length. Class differences, in open societies most often tied to affluence, has ramifications ranging from whether you can afford good housing to your ability to make purchases that signify your status in society – which some would argue is the whole key to class in our materialist world, anyway. And as with any complex set, it is nearly impossible to consider each of these key factors in isolation. Who could argue, for example, that GDP per capita has no relationship with corruption – perceived or otherwise? Real corruption, as opposed to that which is merely perceived, is like a cancer on a society, wreaking terribly havoc on the economy through opportunity costs, lack of trust and transparency, and the real potential that investments cannot be safeguarded.

Just as interesting as where countries rank in terms of the six core elements are the analyses of the ways in which the Nordic countries excel in happiness, or at least self-described happiness: four of the world’s top five spots are held by Scandinavian countries. Why?

Well, for one, the Nordics exhibit particularly high levels of trust in government, namely that the government is essentially honest (not corrupt) and that the services and institutions on offer by the state are of good quality. Citizens of these nations also enjoy significant buffers against the unexpected reverses that, paradoxically, nearly every person experiences at some point or other in life. These strong social-support networks provide peace of mind and better quality of life in down times. Compared to other countries, Nordic people have wider social networks and thus more connections on which to draw for mental and emotional support. It will be interesting to see how these metrics hold up under the Brand New Day that is the Covid world of 2020. I, for one, look forward to the 2021 report, when I strongly suspect global happiness as a whole hits the skids as support systems everywhere are put under strain.

While the researchers behind the World Happiness Report adopt the view that happiness is a good thing – even a social good that should be cultivated not just be individuals, but by society as whole for the benefit of its citizens – there is considerable research that the kinds of indicators used in the study do not have much at all to do with happiness. In my next column, I will deal with the idea, posited fifteen years ago in a landmark study, that genetic factors, and not individual environmental or societal ones, underpin a full fifty percent of your propensity to be happy or unhappy. Ouch. For now, eat, drink, and be merry, even if you cannot be happy.


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