In pursuit of happiness

AEI resident fellow emeritus Mark Falcoff is the author, most recently, of Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy. He has forwarded his comments on the University of Leicester Happiness Index, reported on by Business Week here. He writes:

Like most blog readers, I’ve become aware in the last few days of the so-called “Happiness Index” a British university decided to produce. Denmark came up as the happiest country in the world.

When I first read the headlines of this item I braced myself for the standing of my own country. Happily, it wasn’t produced by the Pew Foundation. While the U.S. didn’t come up in the top ten, we should probably be grateful it stood 23 out of 157. Ahead of us were Switzerland, Austria and Iceland, as well as–imagine this!–Puerto Rico. (Could sunshine and beaches be a factor? Where would that leave Iceland?)

I’ve always been suspicious of these surveys. I lived in Eugene, Oregon for ten unhappy years and was constantly being told by the national media that it was one of the best places to live in the United States. I concede this much: Oregon IS the best place to live in the United States, but only if you happened to be a tree. If you are a human being, you will be very depressed by the weather. Most of the year it is either raining or just about to rain. Oregon has the second highest suicide rate in the United States (the highest is Washington State, which gets even more inches per year). By the way, Denmark has one of the highest suicide rates in world.

Returning to the happiness index. Reading the details of the survey, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the findings associated money and free markets with happiness (even though it took back half of it by emphasizing the “social democratic” version of capitalism in Western Europe). An even bigger surprise was to see that the Japanese aren’t as happy as the Chinese (90th to the Chinese 82).

What could this possibly mean? Japan is one of the most sophisticated, best-organized and prosperous countries in the world. I have not been to China but have been told by those who have that problems of air pollution, lack of courtesy and urban disorganization, not to mention corruption, are all very challenging. Perhaps English universities should try something else besides chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of happiness, a subject that has preoccupied moral and religious thinkers from time immemorial.

UPDATE: Our astute reader Jeff Parks observes: “This line from the Mark Falcoff quote says it all: ‘By the way, Denmark has one of the highest suicide rates in world.’ Of course a country is going to rate the happiest if a good chunk of its miserable people keep offing themselves! They aren’t around to take the survey!” Reader Peter Shalen, on the other hand, responds in a serious vein, declaring solidarity with the Danes:

I remember reading the passage in Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day, all the way back in 1961, where he described the Danes as “the happiest people in the world.” I didn’t get a chance to visit Denmark until 1967, but my visit certainly confirmed what Frommer said.

I’m not sure why Jeff Parks wants to begrudge the Danes their happiness, given that they are also among the most pro-American nations in the world. Denmark used to be, and for all I know may still be, the only country outside the US that had an annual 4th of July celebration. And since the cartoon riots, those of us who are concerned about the Islamist threat have yet another reason to show solidarity with the Danes.

As you hinted in your piece on the subject, political conditions can make the pursuit of happiness possible, but they can’t make people happy. It came as no surprise to me that the Japanese came out low on the happiness scale. Their culture produces an anxiety in people that makes many of them seem ill at ease and almost neurotic. In one of Bertrand Russell’s writings, possibly his autobiography, he pointed out that things that make people happy are not necessarily the things that we are used to regarding as important in life.

Suffice it to say that there is a good reason why the Declaration of Independence only recognizes our unalianable right to “the pursuit of happiness” and not to happiness itself.

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