The pursuit of it is in our Declaration of Independence.
And it’s also in our constitution, our makeup as humans.
But not in a way that makes up most macroeconomic analyses of a nation’s well-being.
“Leaders for the past 100 years have solely focused on traditional economic indicators like GDP and unemployment, and the challenge with that and this notion of behavioral economics is that rational behavior only explains 30 percent of what we do, and that other 70 percent, the emotional side, is absent,” said Jon Clifton, global managing partner at Gallup.
The polling firm conducted the research in 156 countries for the World Happiness Report, which was released on Wednesday by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Not that there isn’t a link between wealth and how happy people perceive themselves to be. That’s evident by examining a list of the 10 happiest nations: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria.
All are relatively wealthy societies, with rich traditions of cohesive contentment, especially in Scandinavian nations.
“This is sort of a yearly ritual: Which Scandinavian, which Nordic, country is going to take the top spot,” said Benjamin Bigelow, an assistant professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Minnesota.
Part of this tradition are traditions themselves. Be it indoor, with the highly hyped “hygge” (“comfort or coziness,” explained Bigelow), or outdoors, where Scandinavians flock regardless of season.
And, added Bigelow, part of it is policy of “a very advanced social-welfare state that there’s a lot of consensus around, no matter where you are on the political spectrum. When those basic concerns are met you feel like you have a little bit more freedom.”
“Freedom,” of course, is a potent political concept in the U.S. Increasingly, so is “socialism.” President Donald Trump warned of it in his State of the Union Address. But others don’t flinch from some of its tenets, even if they don’t embrace the term. Bernie Sanders, for instance, is just one of several liberal lawmakers who are self-identified democratic socialists. At times, some pine for components of the Scandinavian model, like universal health care.
Back in Scandinavia, Bigelow said, words can be loaded, too: “In Europe, in general, they would not call having a robust welfare state ‘socialism,’ because ‘socialism’ has that aura of Soviet-era oppressiveness and sort-of interventionist policies.”
America’s ethos of rugged individualism may make the entire concept of ranking happiness seem abstract — or even absurd. But not only does it focus on what fundamentally matters in life, it reveals more about a country than a raft of standard stats on economics might.
Sometimes on the upside: Latin Americans, according to the report, smile and laugh more than people elsewhere. (“More than anyone on the planet, they know how to have fun,” Clifton said.) So, despite desperate conditions in some Central American countries, Guatemala (27th), El Salvador (35th) and Honduras (59th) rank surprisingly high in the Happiness Report. (Venezuela, conversely, could not overcome the Maduro government’s social, political and economic destruction, and ranked 108th.)
Sometimes on the downside: Compared to neighboring nations, for instance, Rwanda is a model of progress that is often held up by the West as an exemplary sub-Saharan economy. And yet, for a variety of reasons, including but not exclusively because of enduring sorrow over last generation’s genocide, it ranks 152nd, just above Tanzania (153rd), Central African Republic (155th), and South Sudan (the saddest nation at 156th).
These divergences can be determinative geopolitically, Clifton said. He pointed to four recent examples of nations nominally economically advancing, but with sudden plunges in happiness: Egypt, right before the Arab Spring; Ukraine, right before the Maidan Revolution; the United Kingdom, right before Brexit; and the United States, right before the 2016 presidential election.
Each of these cases foreshadowed upsets at the ballot box or upheaval in the streets. So while the World Happiness Report isn’t designed to be predictive, there are some precarious divergences that bear watching: Russia’s reemergence as a geopolitical and economic power hasn’t helped make its citizens overly joyful, according to the report, which ranks Russia 68th — just below Pakistan.
Meanwhile, China, an economic supernova, isn’t superlatively happy about it, either, the report suggests, since it ranks only 93rd.
And for explainable, but potentially explosive reasons, neighboring Israel and the Palestinian territories are a world apart in happiness (13th vs. 110th).
One nation also to watch is another emerging Asian powerhouse, India, which seems more morose than GDP growth would indicate. Ranked 140th, it suggests an underlying unhappiness that could manifest itself when nearly 900 million voters in the world’s largest democracy begin parliamentary elections on April 11.
Despite the perpetual, even permanent campaign in the U.S., elections are still over a year off, and there will be another World Happiness Report to read the mood. But America slipped a place to 19th this year, and everyday observation suggests an America that’s less happy than enduring economic growth and near-record low unemployment would suggest.
A previous election elicited this thought on life-evaluation metrics from Clifton: “I do think it is an important indicator to look at. Because you know the famous quote we heard from the Clinton administration years ago, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ These metrics you could argue are ‘It’s how people’s lives are going, stupid,’ and I think that’s why it’s important for leaders to pay attention to this.”
Indeed, attention — and action — is warranted. As the nation’s framers did, today’s leaders should vigorously prioritize the pursuit of happiness.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.