Take Two #38: The Happy Factor

By Kyra-lin Hom

It's the age old question, 'What makes people happy?' Romantics might say love or family. Cynics and pragmatists might say money or prestige. Ask ten different people and you'll probably get ten different answers. So when newspapers publish articles like 'The 10 Happiest Places on Earth' and whatnot, what criteria are they using and how applicable is it really to you and me?

Well the old guard in the UN seems to favor two factors above all others, those being a nation's average income and their gross national product or GNP. In other words, according to the UN, money can buy happiness. The reason these two bits of data have held on for so long is that they are easy to calculate, and it does make sense that a wealthier nation should have a higher standard of living, etc. But in this age of environmental and social awareness, even the UN spokespeople are admitting that this perspective is shallow.

For example, the UN's recently published document entitled “The World Happiness Report” is now heavily emphasizing the importance of internal as well as external factors. Internal factors mainly being physical and mental health, family situations, education, gender and age. External factors mainly being income, work, government, community, values and religion. The UN's new model on national happiness is aiming to synthesize all of these elements, though they're still figuring out how.

The other major player in the happiness model, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), takes a slightly different approach. Their national happiness equation looks something more like this: [(average life expectancy) x (average well-being)] / (ecological sustainability). It's simpler and turns out some very interesting results.

To break this equation down, let's look at its three parts. The first is self-explanatory. The second, 'well-being,' is a 1-10 scale for how a person's life is going based on their ability to handle their circumstances, activities and mental state. Case in point, someone with a high well-being is flexible, resilient and not easily overwhelmed, meaning that their ability to constructively engage with the world and the people around them is high. The third, 'ecological sustainability,' is a per capita measurement of how much land is needed to sustain a country's rate of consumption. Basically a high maintenance country is thwacked down the happiness scale regardless of how much money it and its people annually rake in.

The results of this new formula, the “Happy Planet Index,” place some very unexpected countries on the top ten list. From 10 to 1 the NEF's happiest countries are: Guatemala, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Panama, Jamaica, El Salvador, Belize, Colombia, Vietnam and Costa Rica. The United States ranks a lowly 105 out of 151 countries. To put that in perspective, Rwanda, the poster child of genocide and fear, ranks 108; Afghanistan ranks 109; and Sudan is actually ahead of us with a ranking of 101.

Now, while I do agree that environment and sustainability are hugely important, I find it hard to believe that a country overrun with corruption and warring drug cartels should rank in the top ten happiest nations in the world. That said, I do like that we can at least see what happens to the happiness index when money is taken out of the equation. The NEF completely disregards the economics of a country and instead focuses holistically on the well-being of the people.

Essentially, the UN and NEF give two very different perspectives on what a happy community is. The UN formula evenly and objectively (as much as possible that is) weighs a person's numbers: their medical records, number of children, church affiliation – all of those things that exist in a giant big brother database somewhere. The problem here is that this still requires some third party analyst to determine when a person is officially 'happy.' For instance, this UN system assumes that a mentally ill or physically handicapped individual is less happy than someone without these afflictions. 'Perfect' happiness here is reaching a bit into the Stepford Wives territory if you ask me.

On the other hand, the NEF system is all about how whole, healthy and sustainable a country's communities are. This equation disregards how much is being earned and spent and instead factors in how maintainable is that pattern. Yet this happy-go-lucky, hippy approach still leaves a bit to be desired because it is incredibly subjective. Someone from a first world country would probably find themselves horridly miserable in living conditions that seem just fine to someone born and raised in the third world.

So I suppose it depends on what you're looking to get out of your statistics. Do you want to find your next vacation spot or are you adventurous and looking to get a taste of someone else's happiness? As far as what makes you and I happy, I think that verdict is still out, though the NEF's technical definition of 'well-being' might not be a bad place to start. Have a great week!

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