James Werrell

Trying to measure what really makes us happy

If Bernie Sanders doesn’t become president, we could make him our happiness czar – with a research office in Copenhagen.
If Bernie Sanders doesn’t become president, we could make him our happiness czar – with a research office in Copenhagen. AP photos

Maybe Bernie Sanders is right.

The World Happiness Report was released Wednesday, and there at the top of the list was Denmark – happiest place on the planet. The top 10 also included a number of those “socialist” Scandinavian nations Bernie is so fond of – Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Others making the top 10 were Switzerland at No. 2, Iceland, Canada, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.

I know you are dying to know where the United States was ranked. Well, we made it to 13th place, a little behind Austria, a little ahead of Costa Rica.

The U.S. has never cracked the top 10, but we apparently are inching up the happiness scale each year. We were 15th last year and 17th in 2013, so we’re making progress.

Other nations, however, had much larger jumps in their happiness rankings. For example, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Ecuador all got a lot happier since the last report.

Sadly, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece experienced the biggest drops. It is no surprise that countries at the very bottom of the list this year included Afghanistan and Syria, two nations embroiled in terrible conflict.

The report is compiled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). The organization uses measures such as nations’ gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy, charitable giving, social support, freedom to make choices and degree of governmental corruption to make its rankings.

The U.S. was not particularly lacking in any of those categories but lagged enough to fall behind the socialists and even its neighbor to the north (which does, after all, have a universal medical care policy like the one beloved by Bernie).

The SDSN concedes from the get-go that measuring happiness is, unavoidably, a subjective exercise. Different things make different people happy.

But the point of the rankings is to try to find tangible patterns to show that we need more than just financial security to make us happy. Money helps, as the GDP variables indicate, but money isn’t everything.

SDSN, which includes members from government, education and the private sector, was created by the United Nations in 2012 but nonetheless is an independent organization. Members hope nations will begin to consider an array of factors that contribute to overall happiness, not just economic growth.

Some nations have gone so far as to appoint ministers of happiness. I’m not sure exactly what they do, but I bet the job description is interesting.

If Bernie doesn’t become president, we could make him our happiness czar. He could redistribute the wealth of all those millionaires and billionaires in the name of general merriment. It might not make us all happy, but it probably would cheer him up.

Regarding the categories for measuring happiness, however, I’m not sure the SDSN has successfully overcome the subjective nature of the enterprise. I notice, for example, that most of the nations in the top 10 list are cold – in fact, frigid.

I’m not sure summer ever comes to Finland.

Several of these nations also are “lands of the midnight sun,” which means they also are, for at least a few months, the lands of nearly 24-hour-darkness. After a week or two of no sunrise, I would be ready to have myself committed.

I’m not sure that a high rate of charitable giving would make up for weeks on end of cold, darkness and a terrain covered in ice and snow.

This year’s SDSN report was presented during a three-day conference where a number of papers, including one that examines the happiness of parents, were presented. Guess where the conference was held.


Now that tells me something about what really makes people happy. Keep the pasta coming, please.

James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.