Tag Archives: Spain

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.

Football & happiness: the feelgood factor of Van Persie

Whether you are a football lover or football hater, you will have noticed that the World Cup has started. Time for me to ask the question: do good performances make countries happier?

Let me take a – randomly selected – example. As a Dutchman, my expectations ahead of last Friday’s match against Spain were very low. We had lost the World Cup final against them in 2010. Spain’s selection contains a list of stars that rivals any team. Their team is experienced, having won three tournaments in a row: no match for our defense on young and unexperienced players.

How wrong we were!

The match turned out to be one of the best stories of Dutch football ever written. In the first half, the Orange Clockwork started slow. After an undeserved penalty, Spain led 1 to 0.

But just before half time, when we already had given up on our chances, something majestic happened. Daley Blind, at the left side of the field, gave a long pass, and the new Flying Dutchman Robin van Persie scored a goal that will go into history as one of the most beautiful ones ever: 1-1.

And this was just a start. The Dutch team – and fans everywhere – went crazy. Arjen Robben: 2-1, revenge for the lost final 2010. Defender Stefan de Vrij, after a scrimmage in front of the goal: 3-1. And Van Persie and Robben went on to score an improbable 4-1 and 5-1. The feeling was amazing. The beer was good. The girls in orange dresses were pretty. Even Dutch music of poor quality was good enough to sing along to. Viva Hollandia! And the good feeling persists. Waking up the next day – with a collective hangover – the result was still the same. 5-1. We beat three time champions Spain 5 to 1!


I guess one can safely say: yes, football results affect the collective well-being of a country. But beyond strong anecdotal evidence, let’s see what academics say about it. Indeed, there are several academic and popular-scientific studies about this question of life and death.

The host advantage

In their book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski show that hosting a World Cup increases happiness levels in a country until several years after the event. National pride increases when visitors from all around the world are received in the home country. However, this effect does not appear in Brazil, where many people strongly oppose the World Cup. Street art protests dot the walls of their cities, and even the 3-1 win against Croatia, courtesy of the referee, on the opening night seems to have done little to increase the mood.

Brazil World Cup

Suicide and strokes

Kuper and Szymanski also show that stories about increasing numbers of suicide after dramatic losses are a myth. To the contrary, World Cups are social events involving the entire community, including depressed people. But football does carry a health risk: matches can create stress and thus contribute to heart attacks. A study, in a scientific article with the improbable title “A matter of life and death: population mortality and football results”, found a correlation between heart attacks and home defeats: male supporters of the English teams of Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, and Leeds United are more likely to die from a stroke when their team loses in its own field! For instance, in Sunderland, stroke deaths increased by 66% in men when Sunderland AFC lost at home.

Today it matters, tomorrow it doesn’t

Another study by Kavetsos and Szymanski finds that the impact of sports success on happiness is mainly short term, and not statistically significant in the longer term. Beyond the home nation advantage, a second positive effect appears when a team, like the Netherlands on Friday, beats the expectations. But rather than a long-standing legacy effect, football results only are a positive feel-good factor for a short time. This also confirms the finding of a seminal study concluding that whether you win the lottery or end up in a wheelchair today, your happiness level is the same in one year time.

Whether you win or lose, in three months it doesn’t matter anymore, claims psychologist Dan Glibert. But I live today, and not in three months from now. And today, I am happy.

Today, Robin van Persie and Daley Blind provide sheer happiness.