Harrop: Polls on happiest countries, states good for a smile

Can we really measure happiness — and our location’s part in it — when we differ on what makes our day?

By Froma Harrop / syndicated columnist

Finland is the world’s happiest country; fourth year in a row! So says the World Happiness Report, produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The United States ranks 14th, right behind Ireland and ahead of Canada.

The report authors based their conclusions on interviews with more than 350,000 people in 95 countries. One of their questions was “Did you smile … a lot yesterday?”

Had I been asked that, I might have said, “Yes, I smiled at a report making impossible comparisons based on questionable markers for contentment. By the way, what do you mean by ‘happiness’?”

The report purports to compare the happy factor in Finland, a Nordic country of 5.5 million people, 91 percent of them ethnic Finns, with, say, the United States, a multiracial, multi-religion, multi-everything country of 330 million running from the Arctic to the tropics.

Generalize, shall we?

No doubt Finland is a promising place to find contentment. College there is free, and the saunas are the best. But Finland does have one of the lowest birthrates in the world, and that is not a great sign.

This whole exercise of trying to measure happiness is fraught with questionable assumptions about what makes people happy. The researchers consider gross domestic product per capita, the higher GDPs per capita presumably conferring greater happiness. But, apparently, low-income levels in South America didn’t seem to depress happiness, and higher levels in some Eastern European countries didn’t seem to raise it.

The concept that some places produce more happiness than others has been extended to the states. Again, the outcomes depend entirely on what the studies use as gauges.

Consider the case of Louisiana. In 2014, researchers at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia surveyed 1.3 million Americans and declared Louisiana the happiest state. Furthermore, Louisiana was said to be home to America’s five happiest cities: Lafayette, Houma, Shreveport-Bossier City, Baton Rouge and Alexandria.

But an analysis this year by WalletHub decided that Louisiana was the third least-happy state, followed by Arkansas and West Virginia. (The five happiest were Hawaii, Utah, Minnesota, New Jersey and Maryland; Washington state was 15th.)

The 2014 survey finding Louisiana the happiest was based on how people rated their physical and emotional health, their satisfaction at work and whether they felt they had access to doctors and good vegetables. They were asked how they rated their life in general.

The recent WalletHub survey used 32 metrics including the number of work hours, job security, income growth and the weather.

Experience suggests that cultural differences can blow up any verdict on how people evaluate their well-being. Some people I know are most happy when they find things to be unhappy about. Many New Yorkers are like that, looking for the catch whenever something sounds good. When they find a snake in the small print, they glow like the game hunter who got his elk.

The dour Vermonter may find bliss living within his means and not having to interact with too many people. The Floridian may find joy yucking it up at the poolside bar.

I recall teasing a New England Yankee as he floated in the heavenly pool at the Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel with a stern look on his face. “Why don’t you be like these people and say yes to life?” I asked. To which he replied, “Yeah, and pass bad checks.”

Interestingly, the 2021 World Happiness Report did not ask the Finns how they feel about the weather. The weather, a Finnish comedian has said, is “like the worst day in London, every day.” Well, it’s fun to read these reports with a smile.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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