How Do We Get Happy?

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

My fellow Americans, our pursuit of happiness isn’t going so well

The most recent United Nations World Happiness Report (yes, that’s a thing), released in March 2019, shows that America has fallen in the ranks for the third year in a row and now stands at #19. Not only that, but the U.S. is the only wealthy nation in which life expectancy is declining — that metric also has gone in the wrong direction for the three years running.

America has never made it into the top 10, but this is our worst showing ever, despite our being the world’s largest economy with a sky-high GDP and relatively low crime rates. The Scandinavian countries and Iceland occupy seven of the top happiness slots, and number eight is, annoyingly enough, Canada. But we also come in behind Costa Rica, Israel, and Germany. What gives?

If I were America’s helicopter parent, I’d be frantic with worry. I’d insist on family therapy. At the very least we should take a close look at what’s chiseling away at our collective well-being.

Consider Finland

Number One in the happiness rankings is Finland. That’s right, Finland, where it’s dark and cold for months out of the year, where the personal tax rate as of 2020 is 51.5, and where food is 20% more expensive than any other EU country and alcohol costs 182% of what it does elsewhere in Europe. 

Also, the Finnish national dish is fried cod with mashed potatoes. With salty licorice as a treat. Just what I’d look forward to after a freezing winter day with 18 hours of darkness. 

So what do the Finns have to be so cheery about?

As in, dads get nine weeks of paternal leave at 70% of their salary. Imagine pitching that idea to the HR department of an American corporation. But then, imagine what a difference it would make in an American kid’s life to have enough time to bond with both mom and dad. 

First of all, Finland has a strong social safety net, with universal, publicly-funded health care. Their education system is regarded as among the best in the world, with free, high-quality daycare for babies and toddlers all the way through free-tuition universities. The country is committed to closing the gender gap with paid maternal and paternal leave. 

By the way, the minimum, government-mandated, annual vacation time for employees is five weeks, not counting an average of eleven paid holidays throughout the year. By contrast, the U.S., alone out of developed Western nations, has no government-mandated vacation policy at all. Lots of us Yanks are lucky if we get two weeks off a year, and even if we do, we’re often afraid to take them.

Finland is not Oz or Utopia

It’s not like life there is all saunas and salty licorice. They’ve got their problems too. There’s concern about the rise in the use of opioids, for example, but Finnish health officials are moving to ward off the kind of full-blown epidemic that has ravaged so much of the United States, and which accounts for some of the increase in collective misery here at home.

Nor are people in Finland immune to illness and devastating diagnoses. But they aren’t driven into destitution because of them. They don’t live with a steady sub-aural drumbeat of dread that they might lose their health insurance. They aren’t forced to choose between medicine and food. 

Working couples don’t face economic or emotional dilemmas when they become parents. Once they do have kids, they are free to enjoy their children’s wonder years, assured of a high-quality education right up through university or vocational school that neither they nor their kids have to go into debt to access. And while Finns don’t expect to become filthy rich, they report overall high job satisfaction — probably because they also have enough time off to spend with their families and in doing things that make them, you know, happy. 

What about the nanny state?

While Finland comes in for some sniping (a group of free-market think tanks put together a snarky Nanny State Index, where Finland ranked first in 2019), Finns report a high degree of personal freedom to make life choices, one of the measures in the U.N.’s national happiness metric. Their society is famously egalitarian and cooperative. They seem to be able to navigate life in what we would call a democratically socialist system without succumbing to heavy-handed government overreach or oppression.

Beyond progressive policies, what also accounts for the high quality of life in Finland is a cultural mindset. Finns, like Americans, believe in working hard for themselves. That’s baked into their history of surviving in a remote and harsh environment. But in order to thrive in such challenging conditions, the Finns have developed a keen sense of community, and an understanding that they’re all in it together. Generosity is another metric in the U.N.’s national happiness report, and Finland gets high marks there as well. As reported by the World Economic Forum:

Almost half of Finns donate regularly to charity and almost a third said they had given up time to volunteer for a charity in the previous month.

What are we missing here?

Americans are also known for being hardworking, generous and helpful, and we’re certainly all about freedom. So why are we living shorter, less satisfying lives than we used to?

One reason may be our dwindling sense of trust. Trust in our government, trust in our education system, trust in our news sources, and saddest of all, trust in each other. 

Trust is a difficult thing to quantify. But it is definitely one of the factors that contribute to a nation’s happiness. In Finland, trust — along with honesty and transparency — are societal girders. In a July 2019 blog post in the U.K.’s Civil Service Quarterly, Finland’s former ambassador to the U.K. writes:

Trust counts as important capital in Finnish society. Strong traditions of trust building have helped Finland reach consensus on how to address many major policy challenges in the past . . . Societal trust in Finland is underpinned by three key elements: equality, education and transparency.

In America, trust is under attack. 

We don’t trust Congress to do its job. We don’t trust our leaders to champion our interests unless we’re among the powerful and wealthy elite. We don’t trust our health care system to take care of us when we’re at our most vulnerable without bankrupting us. We don’t trust that there will be any social safety net at all to catch us when life throws us a curveball. We don’t trust people who hold different political or religious beliefs. We don’t even trust that our kids are safe when we send them to school. 

Call me Pollyanna, but I believe this is where we can, as individuals, begin to turn things around.

If we don’t want to watch our country — once a champion of inclusivity in which the pursuit of happiness was written into the foundational documents —continue to splinter into hostile factions, we have to take a chance on trusting one another again.

What if we sought points of agreement rather than disagreement? What if we focused on the things we have in common, like a desire for our children to be safe and healthy and happy, rather than the things that divide us? What if we could listen to each other, with full attention, without interrupting, and with the intention to understand if not necessarily agree?

What if we stopped tolerating all the screaming and snarking in the media, social and otherwise, by simply turning away from it and talking to each other instead? If we were willing to take a few respectful steps toward one another, is it possible we could clean up our national conversation, by trusting in our collective goodwill?

No, trust alone isn’t going to halt the opioid crisis or end school shootings or do much about income distribution. But it’s a start, and it’s something each of us has the power to choose.

How about a homegrown, American-style experiment in trust? It’s risky, I don’t deny it. But I feel a little bit happier just thinking about it.

Who’s with me?

6 Replies to “How Do We Get Happy?”

  1. Laurie

    Preaching to the choir here, Jan.

    I once read about a study done with monkeys (I think – maybe chimps). They performed a task and were given a cucumber treat. The monkeys were happy performing their treats and getting a cucumber slice as a reward until some of the monkeys began getting banana slices as treats. Then the monkeys who were still getting cucumbers began throwing their treats in the experimenters’ faces. They wanted bananas too.

    The point is – comparison happens. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the US scores low on the happiness scale AND high in income disparity. Something has to be done to address that in this country.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      I remember hearing about that experiment! You and I are definitely members of the same choir, Laurie.

  2. Hannah Celeste

    Very interesting! I really like the point you made that people in Finland don’t expect to become filthy rich; goes to show that it’s not insane wealth that makes people happy. (it’s all the other things you listed – like being generous, and having a sense of community)

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Indeed, there are studies that show happiness doesn’t rise with income over a certain amount (like, some percentage more than you need). And it’s interesting to me that two of the biggest hits on TV are “Billions” and “Succession” — all about insanely rich, and therefore insanely unhappy, people.

  3. A.S. Akkalon

    I’m with you! (from the other side of the Pacific)

    Reading this makes me even more glad I no longer live in the US, but I think the world would be a better place regardless of where you live if we were all nicer to each other. I believe people are good. I trust you (especially if you love cats).

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