C'mon, get happy: Denmark leads in latest global happiness index

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The United Nations on Sunday marked its annual International Day of Happiness, and according to at least one report, the epicenter of the celebration was situated squarely in the state of Denmark.

The title of the happiest nation on earth belongs once again to the Scandinavian country, which has now held the distinction in three of the four editions of the World Happiness Report. Switzerland momentarily swiped the “world’s happiest” label in the 2015 report, before settling for the silver medal this year.

The 2016 World Happiness Report update, released Wednesday and published by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, shows Denmark atop a top-10 field cluttered with its fellow Nordic nations. The U.S. ranks no. 13 out of 157 countries -- sandwiched between Austria and Costa Rica, and trailing its neighbor to the north, Canada (6).

The ‘16 update is the fourth iteration of a report first issued in 2012. The next full report is expected in 2017, and will include chapters looking specifically at two global sub-populations, China and Africa. The latest report places special focus on inequality, specifically the inequality of well-being. It also offers several supplemental chapters, with one exploring the links among happiness, the common good and Catholic social teaching.

The idea of ranking nations by happiness draws from the belief that measuring happiness via life evaluations offers a better indicator of human welfare than more traditional, individually viewed measures, such as income, poverty, health, education and good government.

“The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, in the 2012 World Happiness Report. “They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history.”

To arrive at a “happiness score,” researchers analyzed responses from several global surveys, including the Gallup World Poll, which asks a life evaluation question where respondents rate on a 0-to-10 scale the quality of their lives (10 being the best possible life). A combination of six factors, the report’s authors say, largely explain the resulting happiness scores: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support in times of need, trust in absence of government and business corruption, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity.

As a whole the world has consistently placed itself in the middle of the happiness scale, averaging a 5.4 score in 2016, though greater variation appeared across geographic regions.

The well-being of life in countries like Denmark and other Scandinavian countries has received heightened interest during the current U.S. presidential election cycle, where hopeful Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has raised numerous social democratic policies rampant in the region as examples for the U.S. to emulate.  

More: "In Catholic TV interview, Bernie Sanders praises pope's 'socialism'" (Feb. 22, 2016)

While there’s much debate on the merits of Sanders’ campaign positions, as far as the happiness rankings go, “the Scandinavian countries just tend to knock this out of the park,” Anthony Annett, an advisor with the Earth institute at Columbia University, told NCR.

The bulk of Denmark’s happiness in the rankings is explained through a combination of its GDP per capita ($60,707 in 2014, according to the World Bank), healthy life expectancy and social support. As a welfare state, its citizens pay higher tax rates, but people recognize they get a lot in return, Annett said.

“You have great social services, you get great education, you get great health care. If you’re in a time of need, if you lose your job, you’ll be taken care of. But there’s also sufficient trust in society that people tend not to take advantage of that,” he said, acknowledging that the relative homogeneity of the Danish population factors into its trust and social solidarity.

In one chapter of the World Happiness Report, Sachs, who also heads the Earth Institute, argued that human well-being cannot be achieved by pursuing any single aspect (such as economic growth) but through three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. He likens Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals -- adopted in September shortly after Francis addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York -- as key documents emphasizing a holistic approach to human well-being.

In terms of defining human progress, Sachs writes that Francis “places his emphasis on an integral ecology that cares for the poor, protects culture, directs technologies towards their highest purposes, overcomes consumerism, returns dignity to work, and protects the environment.”

In a separate essay accompanying the report, Annett connects dots among happiness (or human flourishing), the common good and Catholic social teaching. Humans, he argues, “are inclined to seek a deeper sense of happiness than mere hedonistic notions of pleasure and the absence of pain.” That deeper truer form of happiness is, as Aristotle put it “eudaimonia,” or “human flourishing.”

Annett described eudaimonia as a focus “on living in accord with what is intrinsically worthwhile to human beings -- purpose, meaningful relationships, good health, and contribution to the community.” In terms of relationships, he said the individual and common good “are inseparable,” that humans draw happiness from a sense of mutual flourishing where they seek not only a good life for themselves with others.

“This is really closely related to Catholic social teaching, because Catholic social teaching -- especially through the common good and integral human development -- is all about taking that Aristotelian idea that the life of a community, the life of a relationship is actually a higher good than the good of the individual,” Annett told NCR.

This idea of happiness, while not new and explored by the likes of Popes Francis and Benedict XVI, has lost traction since the Enlightenment, he said. One way to “put this humpty dumpty back together again” in the current global economic system, Annett argues, is to use Catholic social teaching as a model. That equates to, for instance, strengthening the bonds between business and workers toward an emphasis on “good goods, good work and good wealth,” to the benefit of both humankind and the natural environment.

The two pillars of Catholic social teaching -- the dignity of each person and the common good -- are manifest in the variables accounting for individual nation’s happiness in the report, he added. While not exactly major Catholic hubs, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries are indirectly applying these principles, he argued.

“People being willing to pay high taxes to support other people in need, because they know it’s a sense that we’re all responsible for all, as [Pope] John Paul II said,” Annett said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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