Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Happiness and Politics

The wealthy U. S. ranked only 23rd among nations of the world in terms of the degree of happiness of their people? Little Denmark ranked number one? What gives? What is to be learned?

The issue was brought to our attention recently, due primarily to a "60 Minutes" piece that aired this past Sunday. The ranking was from a University of Leicester in England study published last year, authored by a British psychologist, Adrian White. The study was based largely on data provided by an agency of the United Nations (UNESCO), the CIA, and the New Economics Foundation, among others, backed by over one hundred individual studies and the participation of roughly 80,000 people world-wide.

According to White, the concept of happiness, sometimes referred to as satisfaction with life, is currently a major area of research in economics and psychology. One of the main interesting conclusions of the study was that a nation's happiness seems to be closely associated with, firstly, the general health of its people, followed by their wealth, and, next, their access to a quality education. Also of interest, a recent BBC study found that 81% of the U. K. population thinks the government should focus more on making its people happier, than on making people wealthier. This is for them how politics directly enters the discussion.

Returning to the study rankings, Denmark was first, followed in order by Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, The Bahamas, Sweden, and Finland. Canada was 10th, Norway 19th, U. S. 23rd, U. K. 41st, Japan 90th and Russia 167th. Several African nations were among the lowest of all. Obviously, as one would expect, the well developed European countries generally did very well. However, as a Norwegian, it was noteworthy and surprising that Norway, a richer country with similar health care and a good education system was back so far, and Sweden, with a healthier population than Denmark, with similar health care and also a good education system was back in

Based on the study and the "60 Minutes" piece, Denmark was ranked first basically because their small 5.5 million population considered themselves quite content with the quality of their lives and had very little to worry about, despite their high average overall 50% income tax rate. Another significant factor brought out is that while people in general had high hopes with their lives, they had quite modest expectations and were therefore rarely disappointed. In addition, Danes generally are more interested in the quality of their life than in the amount of their income.

There are many compelling reasons why the Danes are quite content. There is little serious violence in Denmark, so people generally feel very safe. They typically don't worry much about losing their jobs, because the government pays them a high percentage of their relatively good salaries if they're not working. Their average work-week is just 37 hours, much less than in the U. S. There is universal health care and free education through college, even for retired seniors. Students are even paid to go to college and don't need to worry very much about student loans, although many students do have loans to pay for room and board, if they do not live at home. They have six weeks vacation versus our two or three weeks, plus quite a few days off for several holidays. Maternity and paternity leaves of absence are very generous. Day-care facilities are widely available and the cost is based on parental incomes. Social programs for needy seniors, though they vary around the country, are typically also generous. Their freedoms, liberties and civil rights are similar to ours.

What about the U. S.? As most of us know, our Declaration of Independence, authored primarily by Thomas Jefferson and adopted on July 4th, 1776, argued for "certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." So our Founding Fathers apparently had a serious interest in our happiness. While I have not seen any recent study on the subject, I'm fairly certain that a significant percentage of our 305 million Americans are generally quite content and reasonably happy. However, my guess is that a larger percentage of Americans, perhaps even a majority, are probably not.

An admittedly very limited piece of backing for this contention is that the most popular course this year at Harvard is a "Positive Psychology" class taught by Professor Tal Ben-Shakar. One of the big points he made in a recent interview is that 94% of U. S. college students are highly stressed, due in large part to concern about the high level of competition for grades and jobs, difficult to meet high expectations, common need to work while studying to support themselves, and high student loan levels upon graduation. In his class and outside lectures he teaches that a good predictor of well-being and happiness is having realistic expectations and good personal, especially family, relationships. Furthermore, he says, happy people function better and tend to live longer. Hard to argue with most of this.

What can we learn from this and what role, if any, should the government play? It seems to me individuals, employers, as well as our government representatives should think seriously about all this and decide if meaningful changes would be appropriate and beneficial. As individuals, we owe it to ourselves and our families to invest some time and effort to figure out if we should make any lifestyle, education or career changes to improve our well-being and happiness, for example. Perhaps it would be changing our diet and exercise habits, negotiating with one's employer to work one day a week from home, prioritizing more quality time with family on week-ends, or taking some courses to improve better job prospects. In other words, what can we do ourselves to make our families more happy and content, without counting on help from employers or the government?

Employers, for example, might decide they can improve productivity and ability to hire and retain better quality employees by reviewing benefit packages and consider instituting an improved 401(k) program or a convenient day-care facility if they have employees with young children.

Government representatives may decide that there is nothing appropriate and beneficial for them to do, as long as the majority of people don't want to pay higher taxes. However, it is quite likely that there are, in fact, things they can do without necessarily raising taxes or spending more money, though those steps should not necessarily automatically be excluded, especially the latter. I'm thinking particularly of how our armed forces personnel are treated. Could we, for example, not do a better job of providing long-term care for injured combat veterans and better attention to the needs of their immediate families to improve their lives and thereby raise their degree of happiness and contentment? At least as our economy improves and our national security and defense needs make it more affordable, can not government either lower taxes, upgrade our worn down infrastructure facilities, and/or take steps to put Social Security and Medicare, for example, on a stronger financial footing?

All these types of efforts by individuals, employers, and our politicians, properly executed, should certainly serve to lessen the level of stress a great many Americans are living with and raise virtually everyone's general contentment and overall happiness. I can't imagine our Founding Fathers disagreeing with this. Can you? Let's pursue it!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post! Have you seen this site:
It also investigates root causes of happiness.