Searching for Happiness, Part 1

The lead article of the November National Geographic was entitled "The Search for Happiness" by Dan Buettner. In it, he includes information from the most recent Gallup World Poll which attempts to determine, based on the answers to dozens of questions, the measure of happiness in over 140 countries. Obviously, different cultures have varying ideas about what it means to be happy, but the results are compelling. Based on the survey, the happiest countries are Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore. Three countries that could hardly be more different.

In Singapore, people complain about rising prices and their overworked lives, but almost all of them say they feel safe and trust one another. Since independence in 1965, its society has been based on harmony, respect, and hard work. One reason for the happiness is that they still live lives consistent with these founding values. Religious freedom, equal education for all, and subsidized home ownership are guaranteed. Most Singaporeans own a flat in government-developed housing. Such buildings must, by law, reflect the ethnic diversity of the country, so there are no racial orethnic ghettos.

Costa Rica is a country where a synergy of geography and social policies has created a powerful blend of family bonds, universal health care, faith, lasting peace, equality, and generosity. It has the highest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere, but no army. Since 1961, it has had universal health care, leading to free primary care clinics in most villages. Costa Ricans seem also to know how to party, living moment to moment and taking time to socialize with family and friends. Their economic standard of living is not comparable to Singapore or Denmark, but they don't seem to care because there is no sense of scarcity.

I used to think the Danes were so happy simply because they had such low expectations. It appears I may have underestimated them. According to Jonathan Schwarz, an American Anthropologist in Copenhagen, "Danish happiness is closely tied to their notion of' 'tryghed,' the snuggled, tucked-in feeling that begins with a mother's love and extends to the relationship Danes have with their government." Danes grow up believing they have the right to health care, education, and a financial safety net. They work hard, but less than 40 hours per week, with at least 4 weeks of vacation per year. Income tax rates start at 41% and top out at 56%--a field leveler that makes it possible for a garbage man to earn as much as a doctor. More than 90% of Danes belong to a club or association, from cold water swimming to rabbit breeders; and more than 40% volunteer for civic groups.

All 3 of these countries have governments that are perceived to work, and they do in fact work as expected. There is also a commonality of expectations met by society as a whole. Not surprisingly that sense of shared identity creates a sense of happiness which could serve as a model for the United States, which didn't rate so high in the survey. More on the U.S. in Part 2.