Some of the wisest advice I have ever received came from my uncle, my father’s only brother. It wasn’t the kind of advice you would expect from a scientist, and certainly not one who had managed to negotiate the pitfalls of full-time, regular employment for more than 30 years with very few office changes. Still, it has stuck with me throughout my life as I have negotiated my own concept of what it means to find self-fulfillment in an employment world that rarely, if ever endorses happiness as a premise for work.
“You know, your dad and I are pretty lucky,” he told me one day. The long pause always told me that he was about to impart words I should listen to.
“Both of us have careers that we enjoy, that made us want to get up and go to work. Not many people can claim that.”
I can’t honestly say that I understood the depth of that message that day; after all, I was only about 13 years old. But I remember thinking that if two scientists in the same field, in two opposite ends of the career spectrum could put happiness first, well, maybe there was something to that premise that an aspiring writer could use.
My Uncle Norman, who is now in his nineties, wouldn’t at all be surprised to hear that some researchers are now suggesting that happiness – not profit and money – should be the guiding economic principle in our society. Put another way: we should listen to what makes people happy when making policies that shape their futures.
In 2011 the United Nations passed a resolution encouraging countries to take happiness seriously as a factor in policy making. Nations were encouraged to measure populations not just on things like income, health, numbers of people in a household, etc. but the level of an individual’s happiness.
In 2012, the first report on world happiness was released, which looked at which countries had the happiest people, and what appeared to support their contentment. The researchers looked at major influencers like health, income, having someone to rely upon, perceived ability to control one’s life, perceived corruption in their countries or communities, etc. Interestingly, generosity was also counted as a major indicator.
Denmark took the lead as the happiest country in 2012, followed by Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden.
The 2013 report delves deeper into what are the major influencers that keep people from feeling happy, and why there is such a large spread in global happiness.
The researchers found that health – mental health in particular – has a major influence over global happiness levels.
“(M)ental illness is the single most important cause of unhappiness,” the researchers say in the report, “but is largely ignored by policy makers … About 10% of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression or crippling anxiety disorders. They are the biggest single cause of disability and absenteeism, with huge costs in terms of misery and economic waste.”
The report is underpinned by the view that unhappy populations don’t just make for miserable work forces, but higher economic costs for the country in the form of more health care, more need for support services, inefficiency in work places, etc. Increasing happiness, however, by encouraging policies that allow, encourage and make it easier for individuals to reach personal goals and happier lifestyles results in a win-win situation for both the nation and the individual.
The results were measured over a span of 2010-2012 and compared with previous findings from 2005-2007. Interestingly, United States came in #17 in 2012, below Mexico, the United Emirates and Israel. The research also showed that national happiness in the U.S. has fallen a bit since the first survey, which the researchers point out were taken as the financial crisis of 2008 was looming.
Some countries have begun developing ways to measure happiness nationally. Bhutan, which developed its own gross national happiness index, has been a leader in this field, with Brazil, New Zealand and the United Kingdom following suit.
Sadly, the U.S. got a number of down-checks in this report. The researchers noted that the U.S. had no national method for determining happiness, unlike Mexico, the U.K. and the E.U. They also noted that “the U.S. has substantially raised incomes over the course of several decades without raising subjective measures of happiness …” On the other hand, Jacksonville Florida has been measuring quality of life indicators for more than two decades.
It’s also interesting to note that each of the top 10 countries mentioned in this report have universal health care provisions. Studies done in a number of these countries, including Denmark, Sweden and Israel, including this report, have suggested that the security of a dependable and affordable health care system is an important factor in national and global happiness.
Does that mean that the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)could actually be good for America, and Americans’ overall happiness? That’s a premise that will not doubt be tested next year, as the country joins the ranks of nations that support universal healthcare access for all of their citizens.
Photo courtesy of Camdiluv.