Happiness is as happiness does


What makes people happy?

For most individuals, that’s a long conversation. But for large groups, researchers have been able to tease out some interesting general findings. By surveying some 80,000 people across the globe, social psychologists were recently able to chart collective levels of satisfaction with life (officially, “subjective well-being”). Thus was born the first ever World Map of Happiness, published last year by the University of Leicester, in England.

Countries where satisfaction is highest are colored in with a lovely deep crimson. Orange means things could be better (as in China). And yellow is the vale of tears. Russia is yellow, as are several African countries. Albania shares their jaundiced view.

The researchers got so carried away that they ranked countries numerically. The USA, though robed in red, was only 23rd happiest, well behind 10th-place Canada. The Number One country (and the one to seize what few headlines were allotted to this ground-breaking story) was Denmark.

Why us?, the Danes characteristically brooded.

Explanations ranging from diet and hair color to climate were proposed, and in their turn ranked. Ultimately, the winning reason, set forth in the medical journal BMJ, turned out to be the Danes’ pessimism. Year after year, surveys show, they expect the worst. And year after year, they are pleasantly surprised when the worst does not materialize. The Italians, in contrast, believe Happyland is around the corner, and are invariably disappointed.

Because Denmark is known for robust alcohol consumption, one analyst hazarded an alternative explanation: The Danes were drunk when they filled out the survey. But this line of thought apparently was voted down.

I have long wondered about the source of my own pessimism (the fool’s word for realism). For years I thought it was a Midwestern, Lutheran-inspired thing: you did not dare say you were having a good time, lest God overhear and bring the hammer down. Admit being happy and you could wind up in traction, or with a rare childhood disease.

But now I wonder if pessimism was the gift of my Danish relatives, passed on either genetically or via a look. That look that says we are all miserable sinners, and if you think things are bad now, just wait: you could wind up in traction.

In discussing happiness, it is important to define terms. The Happiness Map researchers had to come up with their key concept in dozens of languages, and ensure that, across cultures, it was basically the same idea.

In the end, they sought a feeling closer to satisfaction with a dash of contentment, rather than euphoria. The authors of the BMJ article seized on the Danish word “tilfreds,” which has connotations of being at peace. “Very ” they mused. satisfied people are almost always very “tilfreds.”

My grandmother (the non-Danish one) used to announce at the conclusion of the holidays, “Well, I’ve had a lovely Christmas.” She said this every year, whether she had had a lovely Christmas or not. I think she was tilfreds that it was over. It could be that, across the globe, happiness is no more than a secret sense of relief that something has ended. But what is the word for that?

Living so far north, the Danes are in the dark much of the time, under cloudy skies a good deal of the rest. Residents of Copenhagen get about 1,500 hours of sunshine each year, compared with more than 2,500 in Rome. Their life satisfaction zooms off the charts as spring advances, kicking their overall tilfreds average into the ozone (what’s left of it).

Actually, years of study have shown Danish satisfaction with life to be consistently high. But it got a big boost in 1992, when the Danes won the European soccer championship. This spike is actually shown on a graph in the BMT article. It makes a big “boing!” up, vaulting the Danes high above where the Austrians dwell in their third-place Alpine paradise. (The second-place Swiss are not shown.) This “boing!” seems to power the Danes all the way to 2005.

The analysts at Leicester say that subjective well-being correlates most strongly with health. But apparently not that strongly: though the Danes have universal health care, they have middling health. Denmark has nearly the lowest life expectancy of any European Union country.

After health comes wealth (the Danes have one of the world’s smallest income gaps), then access to education. A strong sense of collective identity does not get you as far as psychologists had thought (witness orange China). And yet the Danes have one.

In the field of psychology, economics too, happiness studies are in vogue. Further exploring the Danes’ contentment is easily worth a grant application or two. Of course, the Danes themselves are not very optimistic much will be learned. Either way, they are bound to be tilfreds about it.

(M.J. Andersen is a member of The Providence Journal’s editorial board)