As I See It: The Happiness Template
July 16, 2018 Victor Rozek
To a greater or lesser degree, we all wear a necklace of expectations – our own and those of others. As each bead is added and the expectations grow, the cumulative weight can either feel reassuring, like having an instruction manual for your life, or crushing, like a stone.
For the most part, expectations are well intended, and from an early age they serve as a social template for responsible citizenship. In Western countries, the basics include: graduating from high school; going to college; getting a degree; finding a job; getting married; buying a house; and having children. Broadly speaking, those are societal expectations; but parents, friends, partners, employers, and mentors all add their own beads to the strand.
The extent to which we either embrace or endure these expectations depends largely on how happy they make us – or how happy they are supposed to make us. The struggles and challenges, the annoyances and humiliations, the failures and disappointments, all the vicissitudes of life are tolerated in the singular hope that they will eventually land us in a giant, gurgling vat of happiness.
So how are we doing?
That’s what stirred my curiosity when I came across a 24/7 Wall Street list that advertised “The 25 happiest countries in the world.” The source of their data was the World Happiness Report compiled by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which in turn relied on data from the 2015-2017 Gallop World Poll that ranked happiness levels for 156 countries.
Some of the findings were no-brainers. For instance, affluence helps. Countries in Western Europe and North America, where people can generally look beyond issues of daily survival, report being happiest. Not surprisingly, residents from countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East report being less happy. It doesn’t require a survey to understand that poverty and war are the perennial sources of misery.
Researchers looked at a number of factors that were distilled into four broad categories: Freedom, Support, Corruption (government, not personal), and Health. Do residents have the freedom to make their own choices and pursue their own goals? Do they have social support, which may include family, community, or a safety net that provides essential services such as education, medical care, and elder care? How corrupt do residents believe their government to be? Are public resources siphoned off for private gain? Are there vast inequities in wealth? Is the government responsive to its citizenry? And, finally, how long can residents expect to live a healthy, active life?
Given those criteria, I would expect the US to be in the top five. One would think that affluence and opportunity alone would guarantee envious scores in the happiness derby. But, alas, we weren’t in the top five, not even the top ten. Surely, I thought, the US would break into the top fifteen. Not so much. I finally found the United States sitting humbly at number 18, nestled between the United Kingdom and Luxemburg.
Here’s how Americans answered the polling questions: The percentage of residents who said they have the freedom to make life’s choices was 83.5 percent. Given that there will always be people who – through poverty, illness, or unforeseen circumstance – have limited choices, this seemed like an admirable number.
Even higher was the number of Americans who said they enjoy social support, 90.6 percent. Although our social safety net does not compare favorably to other Western democracies, Americans can rely on familial bonds and close friendships for a measure of safety, comfort and aid.
Surprisingly, the percentage of Americans who believe corruption is widespread in their government stands at only 70 percent. Apparently the other 30 percent must not be paying attention. That number probably reflects a belief that our individual representatives (or at least the people we voted for) are more honorable than the other guy’s representatives; and the fact that our relative affluence insulates us from all but the most egregious corruption.
And finally, our healthy life expectancy (as opposed to our total life expectancy of 78.7 years) is 69.8 years.
The happiest people appear to live in colder climes. The top five happiest nations on the planet are (drum roll please): #5 Switzerland, #4 Iceland, #3 Denmark, #2 Norway, and your winner is… frigid Finland. Nearly 95 percent of Finish residents say they have the freedom to make life’s choices, and 95.6 percent say they have social support. Tellingly, only 22.1 percent believe corruption is widespread in their government, and their healthy life expectancy is 71.5 years.
Sounds good, but of course the pursuit of happiness is a highly personal quest. They may be dancing in the streets in Finland, but if I had to endure months of cold and dark in the far North, I’d probably become a depressed alcoholic – albeit apparently a happy one.
The bottom five are: Yemen, Tanzania, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Burundi where only 42.9 percent of residents believe that have freedom of choice, and whose healthy life expectancy is a scant 48.6 years.
America’s uninspired rating reflects the fact that the social happiness template we have used for the past century is no longer operative. Education is problematic for many Millennials. Those who do graduate carry a crushing debt that very well may prevent them from ever owning a home. It’s clear that, for the first time, today’s kids will likely not fare better than their parents. The expectations that traditionally pointed the way to happiness now point to debt and frustration.
The current generation will have to develop its own template while avoiding the two classic expectation traps. The first is the illusion that “I’ll be happy when…” Fill in the blank: when I graduate, when I have enough money, when I have kids, when the kids leave home. If happiness is viewed as a destination it will always reside just beyond reach.
The second trap is the inability to distinguish between your own expectations and the expectations others place on you. Following someone else’s template for happiness is a sure path to resignation and resentment. The reality is that whether you live in Finland, Burundi, or somewhere between, you’ll never be able to get enough of what you don’t really want.
Abraham Lincoln put it best: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” The rest is just filler.