The Happiness Index

For the tenth time, an international group of specialists has analyzed a mass of data and on that basis compiled a “world happiness index”. The recently published report designates the Finns as the happiest people on our globe. In second to fourth place of happiest countries are Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland. The Netherlands comes next in fifth place.

I am writing this blog at my son’s kitchen table in Sweden, which ranks seventh in this happiness index. Canada, to my surprise, comes no higher than the fourteenth spot. The United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, and France are at numbers 17, 19, 20, and 21, respectively. At the very bottom of the list is Afghanistan as the least happy country in the world. Russia does not rise above place No. 74 on the list. (It should be noted that the data were collected before Russia invaded Ukraine.)

The compilers looked, among other things, at average life expectancy, the quality of health care, the average income of citizens, their sense of security, and further at a range of data distilled from the use of the social media. In each country, a representative group of several thousand people was surveyed. Thus, the results largely reflect what the citizens of each country themselves think of their own happiness (or lack thereof).

This project leaves me with a lot of questions. Are the Swedes really a bit less happy than the Dutch? And are our Belgian neighbors really that much worse off than the Dutch? Are people perhaps less optimistic in certain countries than in other, neighboring countries? During the Corona era, I regularly filled out questionnaires from the RIVM–the organization that kept track of all the data on the pandemic. Some of the questions repeatedly addressed how I was feeling. Was I less happy than before the pandemic? Did I often feel lonely, worried, or even anxious? What grade did I give myself when it comes to my over-all happiness? How does one answer questions like that?

The index informs us that there are only relatively few people on earth who, on average, are happier than the Dutch. However, if you follow the talkshows on TV and listen to the comments of people in the street, you don’t get the impression that the Dutch are such an extremely happy and contented people. In the recent municipal elections, almost half of the Dutch population did not bother to come to the polling station. Asked why people did not vote, one mostly heard comments like: It doesn’t matter whether you do or don’t vote, the politicians do what they want to do anyway. They are in it for the money, and only have their own interests at heart. Politics is corrupt through and through.

People accuse the government of not addressing several of the major problems in society. When you hear what people are saying, you would sometimes think that the vast majority of the population lives pretty much near the poverty line. How do you reconcile those sentiments with being at place five on the list of happiest countries?

Of course, there is a big difference between collective happiness and the happiness of individuals. Collective happiness is mostly a matter of statistics. Despite all the complaining and dissatisfaction, most Dutch people realize that society in their homeland is much rosier than in a very large part of the rest of the world. At the same time, we should not forget that a sizeable group of people has every right to complain. Those who have to live on a small allowance, or only on their state pension, have a hard time, especially in these times of sky-high energy bills.

The question remains: How do you define happiness? Health and a reasonable degree of prosperity certainly contribute to our happiness. But there are also a lot of people who describe themselves as happy, even if they are not all that healthy, and even if they have to turn over every euro several times before spending it. Happiness certainly also has to do with good relationships with family, friends and other people who are part of our social network. Yet not all people who have no family or few friends are unhappy. People of faith, as a rule, will say that their faith is important to them and contributes to their happiness. However, there are also masses of unbelieving people who consider themselves quite happy.

So, what is happiness? Whether you are happy or not is a question you can ultimately only answer yourself. For most of us, aspects such as experiencing love and inner peace, having valuable relationships, contentment and gratitude, play an important role. For many, the deeper meaning of life is also of great – perhaps of decisive – importance. With many others I find this meaning in the Christian faith.

Perhaps the creation of a “happiness index” is not entirely meaningless. We certainly don’t live in a country where everything is perfect and the government doesn’t make any mistakes. But if we compare our society with that in most other countries we can consider ourselves “happy” with our fifth place.