From where I sit - Pursuit of happiness

May 10, 2012

It was inevitable that social scientists would devise what they call "indices of human happiness". These indices ask us to think about the well-being of nations not in terms of economic output, but in terms of their citizens.

It was inevitable too that Nordic countries such as Sweden would rank very highly in most of the indices, that the UK would rank fairly low among the wealthy countries and that France and Italy would rank even lower. There are obvious advantages to life in Scandinavia - and in any case, Scandinavians do not like to complain.

When researchers ask members of the public whether they are "happy" or some such thing, Scandinavians are disposed to answer "yes". Britons, however, appear to be more likely to think it clever to trip up their interlocutors and answer "no", and the French and Italians (especially Italians) seem more likely to pause over their anisette or grappa and think themselves honour-bound to interject a protest against the terms of the question itself: "Felice? Stai scherzando?"

What is surprising, however, is that the United States of America, my native country, also ranks highly on most human happiness indices. The US, after all, has the highest documented level of mental illness and substance abuse of any country in the advanced world (according to its own healthcare officials). But Americans tell researchers that they are happy.

I was talking about this with an American friend when I went to Washington DC for an academic conference recently. It was an unseasonably warm spring day. The cherry blossoms were out and we were walking back from an excellent lunch in the central shopping district of the capital. I was telling her how in Sweden there is something intangible in the air. You amble along a crowded street and the people seem to be smiling. Even manual labourers, who in the UK tend to hang their heads in public, strut about as if they owned the joint.

Meanwhile, I said, every time I come back for a visit to the US, I notice how dour the people are - not just compared with uncomplaining Scandinavians, but also complaining Britons, French and Italians, too. There is no spring in the American walk, I said, and even the clothes Americans wear seem drab.

Nonsense, said my friend, herself a very contented person. How could I make such an unsubstantiated claim?

Well, look about you, I replied. Never mind all the things that could be said for or against the statistical methods of sociologists, or their naivety in thinking that something like "happiness" could ever be quantified and measured, or the way that figures for mental illness and substance abuse can be jimmied up by healthcare professionals trying to make a professionally convenient point. Just look about you.

We walked against a tide of pedestrians wearing drab office-worker clothes. With a few exceptions, among people walking together in groups and having a laugh, every person we saw coming towards us, not paying any attention to us or returning our gaze, was frowning. Some of the women, not knowing that they were being observed and queried, seemed on the verge of breaking into tears.

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