- - Thursday, March 21, 2019


There must be something in the pea soup. The World Happiness Report, a survey based on Gallup polling data across some 156 countries, has determined that Finland is the world’s happiest country.

Finland is in a familiar Nordic neighborhood. Denmark ranked second happiest, Norway third, Iceland fourth and Sweden seventh. The Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Austria rounded out the top ten. This was the second year in a row that Finland topped the chart.

The United States did not fare particularly well, coming in at its lowest ranking since the survey began. We’re now the 19th happiest people in the world, between Belgium and the Czech Republic. “The years since 2010 have not been good ones for happiness and well-being among Americans,” the survey’s authors write. “Even as the United States economy improved after the end of the Great Recession in 2009, happiness among adults did not rebound to the higher levels of the 1990s, continuing a slow decline ongoing since at least 2000.”

On the other hand, the United States ranks as much happier than the nations at the bottom of the list: Yemen, in the midst of a brutal civil war; Malawi (poor), Syria (still trying to recover from an brutal civil war, too; Botswana (poor), and Haiti (poorest country in the western Hemisphere) are all home to the world’s unhappiest people.

The survey’s authors attribute scourges like obesity and substance abuse as causes of Americans’ dearth of happiness. Social media is a scourge as well, with Americans spending more time tethered to their phones and less time actually talking to and dealing with each other. Texting is no substitute for talk. Though this strikes us as odd, given that the chipper Scandinavians tweet as much as the rest of us. What’s clear is that, while affluence is happy-making, there is no straight line connection. Italians are wealthy, for example, but not happy. Italians have great food, beautiful cities, fabulous weather, and thousands of years of rich cultural traditions. But complaining is a human right, too.

However (there’s always a however), there are reasons to doubt some of the survey’s authoritative conclusions. For one, the survey doesn’t actually measure happiness, but the number of people who merely say they’re happy. “Taken all together,” the survey asks, “how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” There may be pressure in Nordic countries to say you’re happy, and more pressure to grouse in Italy.

Curious as to why Denmark consistently ranks as one of the world’s happiest countries, Kaare Christensen, an epidemiology professor at the University of Southern Denmark, dug a little deeper. What the professor found was instructive and disturbing. The melancholy Danes are happy, it turns out, because they have low expectations. “When you’re down at the bottom like us, you hang on, you don’t expect much, and once in a while you win, and it’s that much better,” the professor says. “Year after year, [Danes] are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Danes come top of such surveys because they’re asked at the beginning of the year what their expectations are, a Dane once told The Atlantic magazine, and “then they ask us at the end of the year whether those expectations were met. And because our expectations are so extremely low at the beginning of the year, they tend to get met more easily.”

The United States, by contrast, is a nation founded on optimism. The belief that tomorrow will be a better day than today is essentially something like a national religion. Such optimism is a good problem to have, even if it leaves some people disappointed. It’s what spurs Americans to sail the seas and explore the heavens, to found world-beating businesses, and to get up every morning and go for it. America may not win happiness surveys, but it strikes us as better to be hopeful and occasionally disappointed than pessimistic and be surprised every morning, as the melancholy Danes apparently are, to see that the sun is still there.

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