Which Values Lead to Happiness?
Which Countries Are Happiest?
“Is it easy to find happiness in this 21st century, a fast moving life where one finds difficult to even find a smile on one’s face? asks Dhwani, 14, f, India. Despite their number one concern being the global economic crisis and unemployment, global youth feel happy—76% say they’re very happy even though one in three is stressed, according to a Viacom survey of 15,000 youth ages 9 to 30 from 24 countries.[i] Latin Americans and the younger respondents are especially happy. As we’ve seen, what makes young people most happy is spending time with family and 45% say their best friend is a family member. Friends also make them happy. They average over 200 online friends; three-quarters of the respondents report social media has a beneficial effect on their friendships and changes the way they think about the world. Over 80% say they always try to be positive and can accomplish anything if “I work hard enough.”
Beyond the fulfillment of basic needs, having more technology and possessions don’t lead to happiness. The WIN-Gallup International Global Barometer of Happiness surveyed 58 countries and found no relationship between income and happiness; what influences well-being is social status compared to peers.[ii] Americans who’ve spent time living with poor people living traditional lives in Africa comment on their happiness and lack of complaining, even when dealing with prolonged hunger. For example, a development expert commented in her book, “I was awestruck by the Ugandans’ ability to endure suffering and still embrace great joy.”[iii] In Havana, Cubans told me that Americans have a lot of material things, but Cubans enjoy life more, dancing, going to the beach, and spending relaxed time with family and friends. When I asked an Indian high school principal how his generation is different than teens today, retired Colonel Sekar said, “We enjoyed life better and are more at peace with failures.” Another Indian principal told me his generation had more time to play sports and enjoy life. Europeans tend to work less, have less stuff, and have more time and quality of life than Americans.
A 2012 Gallup World poll about well-being reported that Latin America stood at the forefront for positive emotions, with Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela at the top.[iv] The poll asked 1,000 people age 15 and older in 148 countries questions like “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? Did you feel a lot of enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, or anger?” Thailand and the Philippines also scored high for positive emotions. Negative emotions were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, with Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine topping that list. Singapore is very prosperous but the people were the least emotionally expressive. The countries of the former USSR also scored low on expressing emotions. Countries with greater economic suffering become unstable—on average, about two countries per year collapse into revolution.
The Gallup World poll found East Asian countries tend to have lower levels of life satisfaction that would be expected, while Latin Americans had higher levels than expected.[v] The poll found that well-being follows from good health, feeling secure and having freedom. Having a good job helps but economic factors have less impact, after basic needs are met. Few differences were found between men and women except that having children is more difficult for men and marriage is more beneficial for them, while their social connections were more important to young people.
In Pakistan, Hassan observed that villagers are happier than wealthy urban dwellers:
The villagers, despite of not earning enough and facing daunting economic challenges, sleep like babies at the end of the day for multiple reasons.
A. They are tired from the day's work and have spent lots of time in the fields. Hence, when they return home in the evenings, all they care about is a few bites of food and sleep. This is their life.
B. Their faith is strong and subtle so that they do not worry about any robbery. They have submitted their everything to Allah and believe that He will protect their well-deserved earnings. The rich are insecure about the safety and protection of their wealth, house, car, etc. which doesn't give them the inner peace they desire.
A World Happiness Report, presented to a 2012 UN conference on creating a new economic model, found that happiness is more strongly associated with community engagement, social networks, mental health, and individual freedom and lack of corruption than with money—again, once basic needs are met.[vi] In this framework, individualism and social support both are helpful. Costa Rica is an example of a happy poor country. In the Happiness Index of 170 counties, the wealthy US ranked at a low 150. An Indian man explained to an Australian woman living in India, “We Indian people, we look at the people more poor, more low, more hard than us and we be thanking God we are not them. So we are happy. But you white peoples, you are looking at the peoples above you all of the times and you are thinking, Why aren’t I them? Why am I not having that moneys and things? And so you are unhappy all of the time.”[vii]
As usual, Scandinavian countries are among the top of the list of good outcomes, among the happiest, while the lowest are poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicating that poverty of course diminishes life satisfaction. The UN Happiness Report advocates “adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.” Examples of taking action towards this goal, Brazilian youth in an eco-village are trained to conduct happiness surveys and practice altruism, resulting in new neighborhood activities to take action when needs are identified.[viii] Schools near San Paulo teach compassion and wellbeing, encouraging children to be “doctors of joy.”
OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) rated 36 countries on their life satisfaction,[ix] reporting that the strongest influence on well-being is high social status among peers. Other influences on satisfaction include community and civic participation, education, jobs, health, and work-life balance. The lowest satisfaction scores are in Hungary, Portugal, Turkey, Russia and Greece, again indicating that economic difficulty lowers life satisfaction. The OCED report found that happiest countries are Australia, Norway and the US. Australia has near full-employment and 71% of the people trust their political institutions, compared with the OECD average of 56% trust. Australian men had one of the highest scores for helping with family work, higher than the US and Canada. This finding is a wonderful contradiction to the old stereotype of the macho Aussie man drinking beer with his mates.
UNICEF’s large survey of about 10,000 youth in 17 countries found that in East Asia and Pacific, the young people said they are happy most of the time (52%) or sometimes (47%). The happiest were younger and urban kids, and those who live in Australia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Happiness was low in China. What makes youth happy is contact with family and friends. Youth feel sad when they’re scolded or punished as for doing poorly in school, when they’re left alone, and when thinking about death.
In Europe and Central Asia, two-thirds of the young people felt happy most of the time, more so in Western Europe (80%) than in transition countries (60%). Those in two-parent and more well-to-do families were more likely to be happy. Similar to Asian students, causes of happiness were being with friends and family, followed by doing well in school and playing or having free time. Like Asia, being scolded caused unhappiness, as did getting poor marks in school, and problems or quarrels at home. They worried most about family problems, doing badly in school, and economic problems. Other worries included the environment, politics, war and future employment. Despite their fears, 60% believe their life will be better than their parents’ lives, but only 43% believe life is better today than a decade ago, while 26% believe it is worse--especially in eastern countries.
About the same percentage of South American kids feel happy as Europeans, while one third of kids in South American don’t often feel happy. Unhappiness increases with poorer families, kids who are black or indigenous, and in the Caribbean. What upsets kids is family problems and quarrels, school problems, and money worries. The saddest news they had heard recently was about natural disasters, followed by hunger, war, child abuse, delinquency, and violence. However, 76% think the quality of their lives will be better than their parents, more than in Europe. Youth are generally optimistic.
More than 100 questions about happiness were asked of 1,280 Americans ages 13 to 24 in 2007 by the Associated Press and MTV. As for people of all ages, relationships are the greatest source of happiness in this order: spending time with family (73% say their relationship with their parents makes them happy), spending time with friends and with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Money was not high on the list, nor was sex, although 70% said they would like to be rich in the future. Having highly educated parents has a more positive effect on happiness than income. These young people report their electronic devices increase their happiness. Having spiritual beliefs is also associated with happiness (80% of those who say religion and spirituality are very important to them are happy, compared to 60% who say spirituality is not an important part of life). Comparing groups of young people, 72% of whites said they’re happy with life in general, but only 56% of blacks and 51% of Hispanics agreed. When asked to name their heroes, nearly half mentioned one or both of their parents, with Mom a bit out in front—as with our SpeakOut respondents. Most want to be married and have kids.
In general kids seem happier, as studies show they laugh a lot more than adults. Women tend to laugh more than men and men are the best laugh-getters, states Robert Province in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. (It’s good for our health, increasing the healthy function of the tissue lining the blood vessels, reports a 2005 study at the University of Maryland.) Differences in life satisfaction aren’t much different between men and women, according to the OCED report, although women are slightly more likely to be concerned about their health and having a social support network and slightly less concerned about income.
A study of 420,000 people from 63 countries found that people who had the freedom to make their own choices claimed the highest levels of well-being.[x] The analysis revealed, "a very consistent and robust finding that societal values of [freedom and autonomy] were the best predictors of well-being," reported study authors Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer. Freedom influences happiness, agrees a Chinese student.
American people are mostly comfortable with their condition. I know people from all poor and rich families; they are the same, feel happy here. But in China everyone wants to have more, so how can they happy? In the States, people mostly the same rights, it’s fair. But it’s not fair in China in school, society, organizations, or companies. It’s difficulty to get anywhere without connections. Zheyu, 20, m, Central China
An illustration of this equation that freedom equals happiness is the high teen suicide rates in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, where autonomy is discouraged. Russian health experts explain that suicide happens because of rigid parenting, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. One of the few Russian child psychologists, Anatoly Severny, observed, “At home, you order, you enforce, you punish your kids instead of trying to understand them. Schools use what I call repressive pedagogic. Kids are forced to do everything.”[xi] Post-materialistic values seem to be better for child raising.
Max, a high school teacher in the Ukraine, told me that, in contrast to Russia, every school in his country has a psychologist, albeit low paid. Teachers meet regularly to discuss their students’ progress and hear reports from the psychologist about at-risk students. The same teacher stays with elementary school students for four years. As a master teacher, he supervises a group of around 400 students from grade 7 until they graduate, so he gets to know them very well. Parents contact him about their concerns, and he organizes trips and he talks with his students. He works to make his group a team and therefore he doesn’t find bullying or depression to be a problem. At-risk kids (such as those with addict parents) are encouraged to stay involved in activities like sports and school clubs. Other support systems for families are free kindergarten at age three, free school lunches, and free medical care and mandatory pre-natal checkups. If necessary a local doctor will come to the pregnant woman to check on her health.
If very unhappy Sandy Hook Elementary school shooter Adam Lana had this kind of teacher attention, the tragedy might never have happened. To help students, school districts in various states in the US teach Social and Emotion Learning, SEL.[xii] As in the Ukraine, students have an adult advisor plus a discussion group of peers. Students learn to express and handle difficult emotions, resolve conflict, and engage in role-playing to learn empathy. Studies of students in SEL programs find they have higher self-esteem, less depression and anxiety, and less disruptive behavior, as well as higher standardized test scores. Indian Principal Sekar uses SEL in his school as well as he advocates holistic and progressive education in an era when the industrial assembly line model isn’t relevant. In his school newsletter he wrote, “As schools adapt and evolve to make themselves relevant and contextual, socio-emotional learning will acquire pride of place, more than books, curriculum and marks.” However, he said parents and the community aren’t yet ready for this trend.
In a movement away from zero tolerance of misbehavior using punitive suspension, expulsion, and police explained in Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse by Annette Fuentes (2013) and Youth in Revolt by Henry Giroux (2012), US schools are teaching staff and students how to succeed. They learn conflict resolution, empathy, peer mediation and communication skills. These programs include Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), Safe and Civil Schools, Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), and Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS).[xiii]
New Ways of Measuring Progress
Instead of valuing a steady increase in consumption and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that harm the environment, pioneering Bhutan developed a Gross National Happiness Index in the 1970s identifying 124 variables that influence fulfillment. (Bhutan also created a national Organic Policy for agriculture, with no GO, no pesticides, no Monsanto.) Others developed a Quality of Life index and in the US an NGO called The Happiness Initiative provides a happiness metric. The “we” spirit is typical of Scandinavian countries like Denmark, contrasted to the “I” focus leading to the decline of the US, explains Thom Hartman in Threshold. Adam Werbach, a young former head of the Sierra Club, advocates a sharing economy in his Strategy for Sustainability A Business Manifesto (2009). For example, he suggests instead of buying a car, rent a Zipcar car sharing program and rent out rooms to travelers through Airing.
Riana Eisner, author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, argues that the true wealth of nations stems from the contributions of nature and people.[xiv] She points out that companies that make the Working Mother Magazine best list are rewarded with healthy profits. In my telephone interview with Eisner, she of course pointed to Scandinavia as a model of a caring economy, with universal health care and long parental leave and good childcare. She said critics call them “nanny states” although men and women benefit equally. Eisner advocates moving from a hierarchical system of domination to a partnership model that values the contributions of women and nature. Neither socialism nor capitalism has the answer so a new caring economic system is needed; she hopes young people will contribute to the change. She advocates that schools teach children how to care for themselves, others and nature.
[i] “The Next Normal,” Viacom Media Networks. This market study claims to be the “broadest single study of Millennials to date” and the first “truly global portrait.” 2012. Analyzed 15,000 youth ages 9 to 30 in 24 countries.
[ii] Mary Rauto, “Survey Rates Fiji as the Happiest Country,” the Fiji Times Online, January 20, 2012.
[iii] Jacqueline Novogratz. The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Rodale Press, 2009, p. 19.
[iv] Jon Clifton, “Latin Americans Most Positive in the World,” Gallup World, December 19, 2012.
[v] Romina Boarini, et al., “What Makes for a Better Life?,” OECK Publishing, march 2012.
[vi] “First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations,” Earth Institute, April 2, 2012.
[vii] Sarah Macdonald. Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. Broadway Books, 2003, p. 111.
[viii] Laura Musikanski,” The UN Embraces the Economics of Happiness, Yes Magazine, April 12, 2012. Reported by Susan Andrews about Future Vision Eco-Village to a UN conference on “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.”
[x] Robert Preidt, “Study: Freedom More Important to Happiness than Wealth,” USA Today, June 24, 2011.
“What Is More Important for National Well-Being: Money or Autonomy? A Meta-Analysis of Well-Being, Burnout and Anxiety Across 63 Societies,” Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer, Victoria University of Wellington; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, Issue 1.ß
[xi] Will Englund, “Teens Choosing Death in Russia,” Washington Post, March 7, 2012.
[xiii] Jane Ellen Stevens, “The Secret to Fixing School Discipline? Change the Behavior of Adults,” Aces Too High News, March 20, 2013.