Thursday, August 14, 2014

219. Americans could be happier

My wife says I will never be happy. Knowing me as well as she does, I am inclined to believe that she is right. As a social critic, I have a pulse on the negative aspects of life. I see the world in all its transgressions and narcissist behavior.  There is plenty of good in the world, but my emotion is tied to the atrocities—and the lack of understanding as to why they exist. For me, life is a social struggle.

So it got me wondering, what makes people, or moreover, members of a society happy?  How happy are Americans compared to those in other countries? What is it about our culture, or theirs, that makes people happy?

Fortunately, the issue has been researched and the happiest countries have been ranked. While there are certainly some arguable definitions to happiness—for happiness can be relative and individualized—there have been some somewhat consistent results. For example, my relative unhappiness in American society pales to the happiness I feel when I compare it to living in a third world country.

To consider some social surveys and research on the subject of happiness, I referred to “Thrive” by Dan Buettner.  

Of the many definitions of happiness in the book, I leaned toward the opinion of Jim Harter, who said, “It’s really what you do with your life, how you spend your time, whether it is enjoyable and meaningful.” Other worthy definitions often involved the pursuit of goals and dreams—a society which perhaps offers hope.

Denmark has been consistently ranked as one of the happiest places to live. This small country of about 5.5 million people is one of the wealthier nations. However, the difference from America is that the wealth is not tied up in the hands of a few. Buettner notes, “Danes spend more money on their children and seniors than any other people. Lifelong healthcare is a Danish birthright. Education is free and university students are paid to go to school. Doctor visits, x-rays and surgeries are all covered by the state.”  It’s citizens feel safe and their culture stable.

How does Denmark do this? Taxes of course and those making more than $70,000 will pay around 60 percent of it in taxes. A Danish researcher described it this way (regarding high taxes), “We see from the surveys that most people here are satisfied with the trade-off. They approve of the results: A society with an extremely low disparity between the rich and poor. “

Danes also enjoy other benefits, many arising from their culture and attitudes. They trust their government, enjoy generous vacation benefits and feel like they have a voice. They trade the pursuit of material wealth for “education, health care and an economic safety net.”

Another country Buettner considered was Singapore.

Although differing in culture, there were some common themes in Singapore—which the World Values Survey found that 95 percent of the people claim they were very happy or quite happy. While Singapore has some tough laws, such as fines for spitting and not flushing the toilet, there was the common theme of caring for each other.

Remarkably, researchers  reported, “What we set out to do is create a society which was efficient, orderly, well educated, cultivated courteous . . . So we go out of our way to make sure we don’t have an upper class. You won’t see beggars in Singapore. You won’t see ghettos is Singapore. It’s by conscious effort. We know there is a lower five to ten percent of the population who cannot keep pace with modern life. So we have to carry them and make sure they have a home.” They also find them jobs, to create a sense of “purpose and productivity.”

When Buettner questioned issues such as a one political party monopoly and a lack of freedom of the press in Singapore, one interviewee quickly responded, “The idea that American democracy is the only path to freedom is arrogant.” It was perhaps best stated when looking at the differences in individual perspectives. “For Westerners, happiness is about personal achievement, freedom and independence, rather than fitting in and marching in step. For Asians, happiness is defined by society rather than individual expectations,” Buettner wrote. 

Buettner also looked at Mexico and San Luis Obispo, and came up with a long list of societal and individual aspects of happiness. On the list are things like high employment rate, supporting the arts, limiting the workweek (Denmark has a maximum of 37 hours per week), safety, status equality and generous vacations. Individual factors for happiness include paying off your house, avoiding credit cards, owning a pet, watching less television, exercising and finding a hobby.

In the Ruut Veenhoven’s World Database of Happiness, the United States ranked 20. While we enjoy a first world lifestyle, we pay the price. We work too much, value material wealth too highly, fight over healthcare, carry too much debt and have gross inequalities in wealth. We are in a continuous state of war and foreign disputes and regardless of who is in the White House, at least half the population is unhappy with or doesn’t trust our government.

Despite our faults, I wouldn’t trade living in the United States for anything. I don’t want to leave to find happiness, I want to bring happiness here. There are things we can do to make us a little happier—starting with caring about others as much as we care about ourselves. While we each have our own aspirations, there’s nothing wrong with giving a little to make things better for everyone. We’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and with that wealth there is abundant opportunity to create a happier society.