Tag Archives: Denmark

Celebrating the International Day of Happiness

One of the comments Twitter had a lot yesterday: ‘who decided that the International Day of Happiness would be on Monday’?

While Monday isn’t the least happy day of the week (it’s Wednesday), it may be a surprise that the first day of the new working week is the International Day of Happiness. But that was just the case this year: the day simply falls on 20 March, every year, forever.

It seems that interest in the day has picked up compared to when I wrote about it in 2014 and 2015. Via Twitter, I was flooded with articles and infographics about ways to be happy and happiness at work. That’s a great development, I’d say!

The World Happiness Report 2017

The publication of the World Happiness Report has become another regular fixture on the calendar of happiness enthusiasts (see my take in 2015 here). This year, its release coincided with the International Day of Happiness.

Looking at the results, there were a couple of surprises:

  • Norway narrowly overtook Denmark (1st in 2016 and also in 2014) as the happiest country in the data from 2014-2016. A very important disclaimer: the differences between these two and Iceland (3rd) Switzerland (4th, ranked 1st in 2015) are statistically insignificant. In brief, we don’t really know if Norwegians are really happier than the Swiss.
  • It remains mind-blowing how important equal societies, high trust (measured via perceptions of corruptions), and small populations are. Like last year, the rest of the top-10 is completed by Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.
  • The section on the United States recognises its decline. This is not a failure in attempts to Make America Great Again – though polarisation is probably part of the problem. Declining social support and a reduced trust are the factors associated with this. Jeffrey Sachs observes that the US ranked 3rd in the OECD in 2007, compared to 19th in 2016. Given the fact that GDP is still growing but happiness is in decline, it is imperative that the US works on its social crisis.
  • Also in China, the data show surprising results. China’s GDP per capita has seen a five-fold increase in 25 years. If money were to buy happiness, the levels of happiness and well-being should increase, especially for the millions of people who escaped poverty and came to form China’s new middle class. Instead, multiple studies reveal that happiness fell a bit in the 2000-2005 period, before increasing again in 2010-2014. In the earlier period, unemployment and a weaker social safety net reduced happiness, and the recovery of happiness levels took a long time. China now ranks 79th, below South Korea and the Philippines, but ahead of Indonesia and Vietnam. It also outranks Greece, where happiness suffered during the long-standing economic crisis, and the cradle of Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan.

 

Mapping happiness

With the exception of pockets of red (unhappy) and orange (less happy) in Africa and part of the Middle East and Asia, overall, the world looks quite green and happy. There is a lot green to see on this map, from North America to Latin America, in Europe, in most of Asia, and in Oceania. Overall, the world is quite a happy place – and mind you, it’s the only planet where the International Day of Happiness is celebrated!

 

Schermafbeelding 2017-03-21 om 09.30.02

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.

 

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

 

Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

The Nanny State: repression of happiness?

It’s a pedagogic dilemma all parents will face: should we be strict to our children and prohibit them to do things that are bad for them? Or should we give them the freedom to learn for themselves that sand is not tasty, that you can fall if you climb a tree and that a drink too many has dire consequences the next day?

At the state level, similar dilemmas arise. Social-democrats traditionally don’t scare away from a dose of paternalism to educate citizens. Libertarians, on the other hand, abhor states that coerce a certain type of behaviour. Which recipe works best to develop a happy society?

Two weeks ago, I addressed the question “does size matter” – when it’s about the size of the state and happiness levels, that is. The evidence indicated that some of the happiest states are smaller countries, and that after a certain level? There is – surprisingly – a positive correlation between higher tax and higher life satisfaction. Does that also mean that a more active government, a Nanny State, could contribute to higher levels of happiness?

Nanny State Index

Republicans in the US and liberals in EU States – such as Dutch PM Rutte – agree on one thing: big government is big enough, and the state shouldn’t interfere too much with individuals’ life. That’s also the thought behind the Nanny State Index. It has been developed by liberal or libertarian think-tanks, and maps the strictness of regulation affecting personal choice in the 28 countries of the EU.

The Index lists four areas: e-cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol, and food. There is quite a difference in the freedom of access to this products across the EU. For instance, in Sweden alcohol is only available in state stores and e-cigarettes are effectively prohibited in Belgium.

Altogether, two of the paternalistic Nordics, Finland and Sweden, top the list. They stay ahead of UK and Ireland. As a result of strict rules on tobacco and so-called ‘sin taxes’ on unhealthy foods and drinks, Hungary completes the top-5. Denmark, which one might expect to be in sync with paternalist Nordics, only ranks 12th. On the lower end of the scale, we find Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. The freest country of all is… the Czech Republic.

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org

 

Does repression, or freedom, bring happiness?

Is there any correlation visible between being a nanny and low and high happiness levels? The evidence is difficult to interpret: the three top-1o countries of the World Happiness Report rank at different places in the Nanny State Index. Swedish is on top of the list, the Netherlands at the bottom, and to confuse the picture further, Denmark is mid-way in the table.

The implication might be the following. Policies may work out differently in different settings. It’s probably the same with children: all are different. Some kids will exploit freedom and end up in troubles; other will feel their confidence strengthened and will be good and happy citizens.

Looking back at my experiences and achievements in 2015

In the beginning of this year, I formulated no less than ten New Year’s Resolutions. For me, the end of the year is the natural moment to look back and review what I experienced and achieved throughout the year.

This is how I did:

  • Live together with the girl I feel in love with last year

Yes! And it is a very special experience. Moving in together comes with some challenges. But these challenges are insignificant in comparison to the wonderful pleasure of being together every day.

  • Track and improve my sleep

Fairly well. Especially in the beginning of the year, I used sleep-tracking apps. They helped me somewhat improve my discipline in going to sleep and getting out to bed on time. But I haven’t systematically used them all year round. And my sleeping habits still can improve.

  • Expand my blog

Not bad. Especially after summer, I’ve opted for a somewhat slower frequency. I’ve taken the chance to take on some speaking occasions presenting my work in this field. But maybe most importantly, I’ve visited two ‘happy countries’ this year: Denmark and Bhutan.

  • Work on my health by running or by yoga

Could be better. I regularly do yoga, but not every week. And while I ran a personal best at the 5k (22 min 20 seconds!), I have only ran in training for that race, not all year round.

  • Celebrate my 30th birthday

Yes! And I celebrated it well, spending a weekend in the Belgian Ardennes with a group of friends.

  • Continue to do well at work

I think so. My role within our team has grown this year. And in the last week before the holidays, I won a new promotion (yeah!)

  • Travel to two new countries: Portugal and Bhutan (finally!)

Yes! I spent two weeks in both of them, discovering different towns and landscapes and learning a lot about their culture. And apart from these two, I also visited Denmark for the first time and made stopovers in Nepal and Qatar en route to Bhutan.

  • Watch at least one new TED talk per week

Almost. I’ve had a good amount of inspiration in watching TED talks this year, with topics ranging from basic income to indoor plants to improve air quality in house and from the strength of Muslim women in peace processes to cold-water surfing. While I saw many, I don’t think I got to one per week. And unfortunately I did’t attend any TEDx events this year.

  • Read novels and books about happiness

A little bit! A quick glance at my current happiness bookshelf suggests there aren’t too many additions: books on the November GNH conference in Bhutan and The Power of Negative Emotions being the exceptions. Still, (un)happiness was also a theme in other books that I read, such as Haruki Murakami’s title Norwegian Wood. And reading A History of the World in Twelve Maps also made me happy!

  • Become a better public speaker

Yes! Two and half years after joining, I finished Toastmasters International‘s Competent Communication programme. And I undertook some public speaking opportunities to talk about my discoveries on happiness.

 

Especially in the beginning of the year, I occasionally took a glance at the list to remind me what I wanted to achieve. But as the year progress, I took more and more distance. And now, I don’t even understand why I needed ten goals.

Goals are helpful to meet objectives and develop yourself. But if there is one goal I have for 2016, it is to have less goals…

Beyond GDP event: does happiness make good policy?

Can developing countries afford the money to develop happiness-based public policies?

Why is Saudi-Arabia a fairly happy country, despite low levels of personal freedom?

How is it possible that Sweden is one of the happiest countries of the world, but also a country with one of the highest suicide rates?

Are measures of happiness accurate? Shouldn’t weather and gastronomy be part of it, given their importance for happiness? 

This is just a snapshot of some of the great questions that I got fired on me from the audience at a conference on ‘Beyond GDP. Why Happiness Makes Goood Policy’. They provide plenty of material for future blog posts!

The event was organised by the Danish Embassy in Brussels and the Young Professionals and Foreign Policy (YPFP) in Brussels. Fortunately I wasn’t alone in answering them: I spoke alongside Marie Louise Dornoy of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

Happiness is all about statistics

Apart from challenging my arguments and thoughts about the topic, I felt that the questions also revealed a deep interest and understanding from the audience. Happiness is a universal topic, and everybody in the room seemed to reflect on the question what happiness means for themselves and for society they live in.

As in many events, people were curious whether happiness and well-being can really be used in public policy. I feel that progress has been made in the last ten years to strengthen the scientific base and to gathering of statistical evidence underlying well-being policies. Often this is up to academia and central statistical agencies. As I formulated it during the event, happiness is a lot about statistics.

Local governments ‘experiment’ with happiness policies

For the concrete policy initiatives, it is especially local and regional authorities that are discovering and experimenting in this area. The great thing is that field is expanding quickly and that in a couple of years, we will have a lot more knowledge than we have now.

I raised the example of the ‘Geluksbudget‘ (Happiness budget, see here in Dutch) used in some Dutch municipalities. With this budget, socially deprived people are granted a sum of money they can invest in an intervention to increase their happiness. Marie Louise mentioned various initiatives, such as ‘National Neighbours Day‘ in the Netherlands, and the ‘Mobile Mini Circus‘ in Afghanistan. The Happiness Research Institute has also started to collect examples from happiness-based policies and so far has gathered about one hundred examples.

 

Want to know more?

See some tweets below and my powerpoint presentation to get an impression of the event. 

Part of the conference was live-tweeted. For some of the coverage, see the accounts @YPFPBrussels and @DKinBelgium or the hashtag #YPFPBXL

 

Can we replicate Denmark’s success story?

Last week I gave an anecdotal explanation to Denmark’s happiness. To complete the story, today I would like to ask what the Danes think themselves about their high levels of happiness, and whether it’s a success can be replicated elsewhere.

What do Danes think themselves?

If I believe what Meik and Marie Louise from the Happiness Research Institute say, I get the impression that Danes find the interest in their high happiness levels amusing and comical. Danes tend to point at what is not good in Denmark: mental health issues and depression, a complex relation with immigrants, a reputation of not being too outgoing. Part of the disbelief, says Meik, may have to do with the fact that ‘lykke’, the Danish word for ‘happy’, is a term for quite an extreme term. Jante’s Law in mind, it’s probably to say that things are not bad than that they are amazing.

Can we replicate Denmark’s success?

Whether it is through well-crafted policies or a lucky coincidence of getting many things right, Denmark as a state manages to achieve one of the highest levels of happiness. Is there anything in Denmark that can be replicated elsewhere? My feeling is there are three factors that can be easier taken at heart elsewhere:

  • Urban design. Certain factors in the design of a city are related with the happiness of its citizens. A city like Copenhagen is easy to navigate, has green spaces close-by in various neighbourhoods, and can be travelled by bike. This allows people to get around easily and to be active, and the example can be followed elsewhere. The term ‘Copenhagenize‘ has already been used to drive the use of bicycles into other cultures.
  • Work participation. I believe work-life balance (also cited in the Happy Danes report) is an important factor in Danes’ levels of happiness. Acceptance of flexitime and working from home, subsidised creches and generous maternity leave, a full year to be divided by the two parents) are helpful. This allows people to pursue a career and benefit from the overall positive impetus for happiness levels of work, whilst maintaining a meaningful relation with growing children.
  • Strive to take away barriers. Kristian mentioned he does not have to worry about healthcare or education. If such services are accessible for all, this can prevent worries resulting in unhappiness. In other countries, such as the US, the belief that it’s people’s own responsibility to reach success in life is a barrier in the pursuit of happiness. Without wanting to sound like a communist – if US politicians want to increase quality of life, raising taxes to decrease the cost of health and education may provide part of the answer.
Copenhagen is full of bikes. Photo by Kasper Thyge/Visit Copenhagen

The size and design of Copenhagen help people to get around by bikes, spending little time on work-home commutes and being active on the go. Such a policy can be replicated elsewhere. Photo by Kasper Thyge/Visit Copenhagen

An anecdotal explanation to Danish happiness

Why is Denmark so happy? And most importantly: which of Denmark’s lessons can we replicate in other countries?

These were my main questions during a short study visit to Copenhagen that I undertook last week. Denmark routinely tops the rankings of happiest countries. In the 2015 World Happiness Report, it lost two places (going from 3 to 1), but it still the happiest country of the EU. And it is home to a dedicated think-tank on the issue: the Happiness Research Institute!

Another observation: Danish flags are everywhere

Another observation: Danish flags are everywhere. One day walking around in Copenahgen, we counted about 80 of them!

Let’s first share a couple of my findings and observations from three days in Copenhagen. And then, next week, I’ll provide my answer to the question whether Denmark’s secrets are unique to the land of the Dannebrog (the omnipresent flag) and Smorrebrod (Danish sandwiches served with fish, meat or potatoes), or whether they can be implemented elsewhere.

My findings

These findings are based on impressions and conversations with people over a couple of days. If you allow me, I’ll be a bit anecdotal today; I’ve discussed a more evidence-based list of factors identified in the Institute’s report on the Happy Danes before.

Opportunities to live the good life…

Our host Kristian identified two possible theories behind Denmark’s high happiness levels: firstly, Denmark offers plenty of opportunities to live a good life. At the cost of high taxes, the state takes many reasons to worry (and unhappiness) away: healthcare is free, and students cannot only attend university without any tuition fee, but also receive an allowance to do so.

At the same time, there does not seem to be a dominant path set out for you. It seems individuals have the possibility to choose their lifestyle quite freely. In Danish, there is no formal version of ‘you’, even the Prime Minister is a ‘you’. Compare this  to the difference between informal and formal in many languages, such as du and Sie in German, or titles like ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’ in the UK social class system. Even the Danish royals seem to be down-to-earth: our tour guide’s repertoire includes an anecdote about petting the royal dog and entering a conversation with Crown Prince Frederik and princess Mary on the street.

… but low expectations?

The second theory Kristian cites is that low expectations about life can be a factor. As the expression has it, low expectations are key to a happy life. According to Danish-Dutch philosopher Stine Jensen’s, the so-called Law of Jante can explain the unpretentious mentality of the Danes. Half-ironic, half-serious the law of Jante drawn up by writer  Aksel Sandemose formulates ten rules Danes (and other Scandinavians) are required to live by. These include:

  • You’re not to think you are anything special.
  • You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  • You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Happiness is within easy reach

This attitude and the small scale of the Danish society, at some 5 million people, could possibly explain why Danes live well together in their community. In a sunny May weekend in Copenhagen I observed a vibrant social life. With many Danes, I spent my Saturday night on the Tivoli Lunapark, and on Sunday in amongst hipsters in the Papiroen Street food Mekka and amongst hippies in Christiania. At the same time, the sun didn’t only colour my face but also bias my view. On a grey and cold March days, when winter is in its seventh month, there’s little to be ecstatic about.

That’s it for today. Next week, I’ll get to two other questions: what do Danes think themselves about their high levels of happiness, and can their lessons be replicated their elsewhere?

IMG_2615

Sitting on a sunny terrace at the waterfront, happiness is within easy reach

Event on Beyond GDP, 4 June in Brussels

Can human happiness be a basis for policy-making?

To hear my thoughts on this topic, join the event on “Beyond GDP – Why Happiness is Good Policy” on 4 June at 19.00 in Brussels. Find the details and the link to the registration form here.

The event is organised by the Danish Embassy in Brussels and the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). The main speaker is Marie Louise Dornoy, a researcher at the Danish Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is a think-tank dedicated to the study of happiness and well-being, as well as policies and interventions to increase them.

Full text of the invitation:

beyond gdp event

Picture by Camdiluv, Chile, taken from WIkipedia.

WHAT: Beyond GDP – Why Happiness is Good Policy
WHEN: Thursday, 4 June, 19.00 – 20.30
WHERE: Danish Church, Rue Washington 27, 1050 Brussels (Ixelles)
WHO:YPFP Members and friends. In the event of over-subscription, YPFP members will be given preference.

REGISTER: https://goo.gl/Gf88IH

Can human happiness be a basis for policy-making?

In the 1970s, Bhutan based its public policy on the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). Instead of economic goals championed by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the aim of GNH is to contribute to public policies that directly affect the well-being of citizens.
Since the early 2000s, global discussions on ‘beyond GDP’ policies have sought to include happiness as an alternate criteria for policy-making.

On Bhutan’s initiative, the UN adopted a resolution recognising the human aspiration to happiness. The UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network reports on world happiness levels. The 2015 World Happiness Report ranks Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark as the three happiest countries in the world. But ‘beyond GDP’ policies are also questioned. Can governments legitimately decide what happiness is? Can public policy really increase well-being? Does a focus on happiness distract governments from more important policy objectives?

Join our discussion with:
- Marie Louise Dornoy, Research & Communications, The Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Jasper Bergink, Editor and Happiness Researcher, For a State of Happiness

Please note that you will be asked to provide ID details upon registration. Participants will need to provide photo ID to gain entry to the event.

The World Happiness Report 2015: a wealth of data to make the world a happier place

The World Happiness Report 2015 is out and struck some headlines last week. Number one this year is Switzerland, and Togo comes last. But beyond praising winners and shaming losers, there is a lot more of interested figures to find. A quick selection of some of them.

The good news: how happy are we?

  • Let’s start with the good news. Of 130 countries where it was possible to compare data from 2012-2014 with 2005-2007, 53 saw significant improvements in happiness levels (41 decreased and 36 had no meaningful change). This suggests the world is a slightly happier place then it used to be.
  • The biggest improvements were made in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Moldova and Sierra Leone, who each added around one full point in their score.
  • It’s the well-expected developing countries that fill the top-1o: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia, all a solid 7.3 or higher
  • … and what’s the score of the number one, Switzerland? With three decimals to be Swiss and precise, we get to 7.587.

Other good news (but not in stats)!

  • The most important sections maybe are not those listing the countries, but providing case studies of cities and regions who have changed their policies to make use of all the knowledge about happiness, from Dubai to Jalisco (Mexico), and from Santa Monica to Bristol.
  • At the same time, progress is also made in the neuroscience of happiness. A dedicated chapter 5 summarizes some of the findings. For instance, evidence about the link between positive emotions and happiness appears to be stronger and stronger.
  • There is more and more understanding about the various distribution patterns of happiness within age groups and genders. Overall, women are slightly happier than men. Over age groups, the patterns differ per region: in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and South Asia, happiness goes down as age progresses. But in East Asia, but also in Western Europe, the best comes last: happiness levels go up as people enter their 70s.

The bad news: how unhappy are we?

  • There is still a lot, a lot of misery on our planet. More than fifty countries have happiness levels below 5.
  • And the worst-performing are truly miserable. Countries like Syria and Afghanistan, but also Rwanda, Benin and Burundi fall under 3.6 The lowest level is found in Togo at 2.839.
  • Two countries on different sides of the Mediterranean – Egypt and Greece – have lost more than one point. And some others (Jordan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Italy) lost around three quarters of a point.
  • For instance, the case of Italy (-.764, now at 5.948) is worrying. Usually, a high happiness level means a high level of resilience in phase of challenge. This fabric might be unraveled as result of the crisis Italy is going through.
  • To end with a positive note: he best ‘losers’, as far as one could be a loser with a score of 7.527, are the Danes. Denmark typically ranks one in most of the happiness report. I have been told that usually, it is no news when a happiness ranking is published, but this time it was: apparently, Danes are not used anymore to come second (or third, as now).

And now?

The 2015 World Happiness Report comes out with a large ambition: influencing the next development goals. As the UN prepares to adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) this year, the hope is that happiness outcomes are targeted within the SDGs. A worthwhile ambition: ultimately increasing human happiness and its fair distribution should be the goal of public policy.

One concern: the SDG process appears to be very complex, with over 150 different – and often, vague – ideas currently on the list of goals that could be adopted later this year. In such a process, they risk to lose their meaning. But either way, the wealth of statistics provides a lot of inspiration and background data to policy makers to make the world a happier place.

Geography of happiness

How happy are we actually in Europe?

Did you feel particularly good last Friday? Maybe you enjoyed #Eclipse2015 as so many others did. Or you felt great because the world was celebrating the International Day of Happiness!

The International Day of Happiness was instituted by the United Nations in 2012, as I wrote last year. I must say that beyond a flood of tweets, I haven’t seen too many official events this year. The exception however was a very interesting data set from Eurostat that answers how happy we actually are in the EU.

I’ll come with the answers soon. But let me first give an idea on how we actually measure happiness.

How do you measure happiness?

There are practically three ways to measure happiness:

  • “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” With this question, people are asked about their overall quality of life or life satisfaction. There can be a little bias there – I might answer something different today than I would tomorrow. But the experience of researchers is that these biases cancel each other when the sample is large enough.
  • “How much of the time over the past four weeks have you been happy?” This question instead measures positive affect, or people’s happiness level on an emotional rather than on a more rational level. It’s based on the idea that beyond the overall life satisfaction, the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions is a good indicator of how a person really lives. 
  • Finally, there is ‘eudaimonia’, ‘eudaimonic happiness‘, or ‘meaning of life‘, which has a less clear-cut question. Eudaimonia broadly refers to the value and purpose of life, important life goals, and for some, spirituality. This requires a bit more reflection before it is answered.

Eurostat’s results show that the three measures are correlated at country level and at individual level, with some exceptions. A high level of positive affect is correlated with high life satisfaction and meaning of life. Still, one out of fourteen is ‘happy all of the time’ but with a low level of life satisfaction!

The good news: how happy are we?

There is a lot of good news in the figures:

  • 16 out of 28 countries have an average above 7.0, and the EU average is 7.1 out of 10
  • The highest level of happiness is found in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, with 8.0. The Netherlands and Austria score an 8.
  • On average, young people (16-24) score highest, at 7.6. The outliers are the Austrians: 8.4!
  • In Finland (8.3) and in my own home country, the Netherlands (8.0), the highest bracket is the age group 25-34. Does that mean that statistically, I will never be as happy as I am now? (The answer is: no. The study explains there can also be a ‘cohort effect’ – a group of people could retain the same happiness level, independent of their age group.
  • And the happiest are… Danish seniors! The absolute highest number is found in Danes in the age of 65-74: 8.6, and 0.7 higher than the 50-64 group in Denmark (7.9). There must be something amazing about retirement in Denmark!
  • There is only a marginal difference between men (7.1) and women (7.0). Also, there are slightly more women in the highest category. And controlling for differences in income, marital status, and labour market position, women are happier.
  • 42.1% of Danes scores above 8, and only 5.6% of Dutch score below 6. This might actually be the most important outcome: when it’s about happiness, it is not only the average but also the distribution that should count. In these two countries, happiness seems to be distributed fairly equally.

The bad news: how unhappy are we?

But there also is a bit of bad news in the figures:

  • Generally, happiness levels tend to decline with age: from 7.6 (16-24) to 6.9 (50-64), before making a little rise to 7.0 (65-74) and a further decline to 6.8 (75+)
  • Bulgarians and Serbians appear to be quite miserable: they score averages of 4.8 and 4.9. In Bulgaria, every age group is below 6.
  • Unemployment buys unhappiness. The difference between full-time employment and unemployment is 1.6 points (7.4 vs 5.8).
  • There is also a strong relation between poverty and unhappiness. Only 7.5% of materially deprived people has a high level of life satisfaction. And deprivation of important needs (ability to pay rent, to keep the home warm, a holiday or a car) has a larger negative effect on happiness than poverty in monetary terms.

The full analysis from Eurostat is available here.

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