Policy-makers should pay attention to world happiness rankings

Posted on March 21, 2017 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – News/GTA – Norway tops the rankings in the World Happiness Report released Monday. Canada was ranked seventh. The U.S. was ranked 14th.
March 20, 2017.   By ROSIE DIMANNO, Columnist

The world needs more . . . Norway.

Or at least, we should all be more like Norwegians, who have apparently discovered the fountain of well-being, despite being most famously associated with Edvard Munch’s agonized The Scream.

Now, I’ve always known that Norway was in a league of its own for friendliness and contentment and hospitality, which is why I’ve long advocated for the Winter Olympics to be permanently sited in Lillehammer or Oslo. And of course they’re a winter sports dynamo, collecting 107 gold medals in Games competition. If they ever get really good at hockey, Canada will be in trouble. Fortunately for us, they prefer cross country skiing and biathlon. Those sports are national passions and quirks.

For all my life, Canadians have been compared, unfavourably, to Swedes — you know, the average 60-year-old Swede fitter than the average 30-year-old Canadian. But apparently we should cast our eyes further west in Scandinavia if we want to lead cheerful and gratifying lives.

The proof is in the World Happiness Report, released Monday, with Norway topping the tables, vaulting four spots to Numero Uno over last year, measured by economics, health, life expectancy, sense of community and various other polling data. In reaching the heights of fulfilment, Norway has pushed Denmark down to No. 2. Denmark actually has a Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen so they take the subject seriously. The only Dane I know is Maple Leaf goalie Frederik Andersen and he doesn’t come across as particularly jolly, especially after the team loses another shootout (1-for-8 going into Monday night’s game against Boston.)

In fact, scoring difference among the four happiest nations — Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland — is just about statistically insignificant, beyond bragging rights.

John Helliwell, lead author of the report which was produced by the United Nations and an economist at the University of British Columbia, compares the apex jostling to Premier League football. “You’re not going to expect the same team to win all the time. They’re going to have to take turns winning games.”

Canada was ranked seventh among 155 countries so we remain a pleased as punch bunch.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Helliwell told the Star about the quantifying of indexes, which involves questioning 1,000 people from each country. “The question the rankings are based on asks people to think of their life as a ladder, with the best possible life being a 10 and the worst a zero. That’s it.”

Those answers are averaged. “It’s not our decision. It’s very democratic.”

There’s apparently no deception to the thing, no padding. Although it’s odd that a country such as Finland, which has among the highest alcoholism and suicide rates in Europe, should come in fifth. Perhaps they’re happily inebriated during all those months of grim, grey wintry funk before jumping off a roof. In any event, seasonal affective disorder apparently doesn’t impact on life evaluation by citizens.

“That’s a good point,” says Helliwell, who in the past has studied suicide in Finland. “Finland is a bit of an outlier on suicide. The weights were a little different so that divorce and belief in God were much more important in avoiding suicide, while good government was much more important in supporting well-being. Trust and connections with others are both high in Finland. They fit the well-being equation very well.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, happiness in the United States is declining, America slipped to 14th from 13th. Sad. Except the data was collected before Donald Trump was elected president, so can’t be blamed on him, although the researchers expect unhappiness south of the border to continue on a downward path.

“There’s clearly more polarization of political thought in the United States. Often polarization tends to increase fractiousness and decrease mutual trust. Those are bad for happiness. But we’ll just have to see how this works out. It’s always a mistake to forecast if you don’t have to.”

Jeffrey Sachs, the esteemed Columbia University economist and author of the report’s chapter on the U.S., writes: “The United States offers a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness in all the wrong places. “The country is mired in a rolling social crisis that is getting worse.’’

He points the finger of blame at soaring income inequality, slashing of federal agency budgets for justice, health and education, the rise of big money in American politics and an “open-ended global war on terror” that has helped to stoke a climate of fear.

The happiness report, published annually since 2012, has practical application, says Helliwell. “What kind of public policies will help to produce happiness? That’s the whole purpose of the happiness report. To raise the awareness that there are these scientifically replicable measures of the quality of life that don’t give you the same answers as GDP and don’t invite the same policies that maximizing GDP would mean.

Politicians and policy-makers should pay attention. “They ought to be thinking about how happy people are and how happy should they be with the services they’re provided. If these numbers are taken seriously, it’s to raise the level of policy awareness and discussion.”

The world’s “unhappiest” countries are all in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa: war-torn Yemen and Syria in the bottom 10; Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda bring up with rear with Central African Republic dead last.

By the way, I’ll be in Finland next week. Yup, really cheer up the place, me.

The 10 happiest countries by average levels from 2014 to 2016

1. Norway

2. Denmark

3. Iceland

4. Switzerland

5. Finland

6. Netherlands

7. Canada

8. New Zealand

9. Australia

10. Sweden


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