Monday, March 19, 2018

Are We As Happy As We Used To Be? A Glimpse at the World Happiness Report

Because we live in a scientific age, we enjoy defining and measuring and quantifying things. This goes back to Aristotle who, in addition, began by naming things.

At the end of last week a story about World Happiness caught my attention. The two highlights that jumped out for me were that Norway is now the happiest place in the world and that the U.S. isn't as happy as it used to be.

What were their criteria, I wondered. How does one measure happiness?

The organization, loosely affiliated with the U.N., has been studying happiness for only about five years, publishing their first report in 2013. That the research is global in scope intrigued me. Here in the U.S. "the pursuit of happiness" was loudly trumpeted as a one of our inalienable rights in our Declaration of Independence. But what is this elusive entity that we call happiness?

The World Happiness Report evaluates the following main factors when measuring happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.

It's an interesting list. Measuring happiness by ranking countries, though, has certain difficulties because as we all know there are vast differences in every country between those at the top of the heap and those at the bottom. (EdNote: I did not read the report in its entirety, but reviewed the executive summary and sections from the various chapters and appendices.)

That Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland led the list of happy countries did not surprise me. We've heard a lot over the years about the high levels of satisfaction people enjoy in Scandinavia. (Finland was 5th and Sweden tied for 9th, in case you wish to know.) The other countries in the top ten were Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. (EdNote: I've never met an Australian who did not seem happy to me.)

So what happened to the U.S? We used to be 3rd.  Now we rank 19th. The executive summary gave these two reasons for this country's fall: declining social support and increased corruption. By way of contrast, the Nordic countries have increased social support and reduced corruption.

As I skimmed the various sections of the report, one of the biggest factors contributing to personal misery is mental illness, which corrodes happiness in whatever country one finds oneself in. Mental illness is a universal problem without borders, which brought to mind this article from The Guardian regarding assisted suicide. Because of lax euthanasia laws Aurelia Browers, a troubled mentally 29-year-old woman in the Netherlands was by law recently able to legally end her life. The Netherlands law was enacted in 2002, permitting assisted suicide when there is "unbearable suffering" without hope of relief.

As I think about this woman's suffering it makes me sad. But suffering takes many forms. We need more caring and compassion for sure, for we never know what hidden burden another is carrying.*

They say that humans have a remarkable capacity for adaptation, but there sure is a lot of brokenness out there. Things aren't what they are supposed to be. That's why we need to be kind, compassionate, merciful and generous.

Are you happy? Somehow writing about all this happiness today made me sad.

Meantime, life goes on. "Sit, Ubu."

* I used to attribute this to Rumi, but have read here that it was someone else.

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