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Happiest Places on Earth

Happiest Places on Earth November 12, 2008

This came through the wire on one of the Buddhist discussion groups I’m on. All-in-all, Americans are pretty happy. And, given our relative material ease, this makes sense. But if wealth and the ability to consume and travel at will were the main ingredients to happiness, then America should be number one.

What might not make sense is why we’re tied with the relatively poor Malaysia and behind the even poorer Bhutan. (see partial chart below or full one in the article)

So we might ask two questions: What pulls us down, over 20 points below leading nations? And What brings a country like Bhutan, a VERY happy country surrounded by ho-hum nations, up so high?

The latter question might be the more obvious to knowledgeable Buddhists: Gross National Happiness. This is an official policy in Bhutan, replacing the otherwise universal quest for higher GNP(roduct). One might thus be tempted to make Bhutan out to be Shangri-La, a place once occupied now the now Chinese-military-occupied Tibet. But it’s not, as far as I know. It does still feature stunning natural beauty, very low crime, traditional ways of life, and low popluation density. But the country is in the midst of great flux.

For centuries it was relatively well-sheilded by the natural barrier of the Himalayas. Tibetan armies even invaded once and were driven out. In the 20th century, Bhutan worked hard to establish its autonomy as a nation, sandwiched between war-torn China and India/Bangaladesh. The king of Bhutan, a Buddhist, has eased the country into the 20th/21st centuries slowly but surely. But this hasn’t been without its problems; alcoholism is just one of many ‘modern’ problems that have hit Bhutan in recent years.

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America is an even more complex phenomena. Sure, our nation is incredibly rich, but that wealth is not equitably distributed. And as our public education system slides into disrepair, people here don’t even get equal starting-points. The poor become ever-more entrenched in poverty and the rich can’t help but stay rich. Sure, there are many counterexamples to this, but the trend is what it is. In fact the gap has gotten larger over the last 20 years.

This leads to problems. People with no money, who are growingly disenfranchised by the system (watching the rich get richer and their friends get poorer) tend to be more likely to subvert the system, i.e. break the law – steal, destroy, harm people. They who live in discomfort, with little to lose can be a real pain in the butt to even the wealthiest out there. How big can you build your security-walls? How many guards can you hire? How paranoid should you be when you send your kids off to school? The gap between rich and poor makes both unhappy.

Another possible direction to look in for sources of happiness is religion, or lack thereof. Writer Phil Zuckerman, in his book “Society Without God” (which I’ll review soon over at Progressive Buddhism), suggests that the lack of religious zeal may be part of why Scandinavian society is so smiley; and note that Finland and Sweden both rank higher than the US. Yet this may be a difficult case to make. Bhutan, for example is extremely religious, albeit Buddhist. Malta (which I had the great luck to visit last winter) is also feverishly religious, albeit Catholic (though it has at least 2 Buddhists spreading happiness on the little island of Gozo). And Malasia is an officially Islamic state (and it is about 20% Buddhist, so that might be the trick there too).

In order to get into the impact of religion on a nation’s happiness, you might have to get into the ties that religion has with government, how fundamentalist and intolerant said religion(s) is toward others, etc. And that’s more work than I’m probably ever going to do! And then there are countless other possibilities for why certain nations are happier: family-structures, geography, cultural homogeneity, cultural heterogeneity, history, etc…

What do you think? What makes us happy (in the US or anywhere)? And what makes us unhappy?

Appendix

SWLS Score
DENMARK 273
SWITZERLAND 273
AUSTRIA 260
ICELAND 260
BAHAMAS 257
FINLAND 257
SWEDEN 257
BHUTAN 253
BRUNEI DARUSSALAM 253
CANADA 253
IRELAND 253
LUXEMBOURG 253
COSTA RICA 250
MALTA 250
NETHERLANDS 250
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA 247
MALAYSIA 247
NEW ZEALAND 247
NORWAY 247
SEYCHELLES 247
ST KITTS AND NEVIS 247
UAE 247
USA 247
VANUATU 247
VENEZUELA 247

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