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The happiest place on Earth? Denmark, not Disneyland

Measuring well-being is a hot new academic field, with many saying there's more to quality of life than money.

August 26, 2007|Arthur Max and Toby Sterling | Associated Press

AMSTERDAM — The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan long ago dispensed with the notion of Gross National Product as a gauge of well-being. The king decreed that his people would aspire to Gross National Happiness instead.

That kernel of Buddhist wisdom is finding an echo in international policy and development models, which seek to establish scientific methods for finding out what makes us happy and why.

New research institutes are being created at venerable universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to establish methods of judging individual and national well-being. Governments are putting greater emphasis on promoting mental well-being -- not just treating mental illness.

"In much the same way that research of consumer unions helps you to make the best buy, happiness research can help you make the best choices," said Ruut Veenhoven, who created the World Database of Happiness in 1999.

When he started studying happiness in the 1960s, Veenhoven used data from social researchers who simply asked people how satisfied they were with their lives, on a scale of 0 to 10.

But as the discipline has matured and gained popularity in the last decade, self-reporting has been found lacking.

By their own estimate, "drug addicts would measure happy all the time," said Sabina Alkire, of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Institute, which began work May 30.

New studies add more objective questions into a mix of feel-good factors: education, nutrition, freedom from fear and violence, gender equality and perhaps most important, having choices.

"People's ability to be an agent, to act on behalf of what matters to them, is fundamental," Alkire said.

But if people say money can't buy happiness, they're only partially right.

Veenhoven's database, which lists 95 countries, is headed by Denmark with a rating of 8.2, followed by Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and Finland, all countries with high per capita income.

At the other end of the scale are much poorer countries: Tanzania rated 3.2, behind Zimbabwe, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia.

The United States just makes it into the top 15 with a 7.4 index rating. Though choice is abundant in the U.S., nutrition and violence issues drag its rating down.

Wealth counts, but most studies of individuals show that income disparities count more.

But citizens are no happier in welfare states, which strive to mitigate the distortions of capitalism, than in purer free-market economies.

"In the beginning, I didn't believe my eyes," Veenhoven said of his data. "Icelanders are just as happy as Swedes, yet their country spends half what Sweden does [per capita] on social welfare," he said.

In emphasizing personal freedom as a root of happiness, Alkire cited her study of women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which showed that poor women who make their own choices score highly, compared with women with strict fathers or husbands.

Adrian G. White, of the University of Leicester, included twice as many countries as Veenhoven in his Global Projection of Subjective Well-being, which also measures the correlation of happiness and wealth. He too led his list with Denmark, Switzerland and Austria.

Bhutan, where less than half the people can read and write and 90% are subsistence farmers, ranks No. 8 in his list of happy nations. Its notion of GNH is based on equitable development, environmental conservation, cultural heritage and good governance.

U.S. researchers have found other underlying factors:

Married people are more content than singles, but having children does not increase levels of happiness.

Education and IQ seem to have little effect. Attractive people are only slightly happier than are the unattractive; the elderly -- those older than 65 -- are more satisfied with their lives than are the young. And friendships are crucial.

But the research also shows that many people are simply disposed to being either happy or disgruntled, and as much as 50% of the happiness factor is genetic. Like body weight, moods can swing only so much from their natural "set point."

Some educators say people can affect their happiness.

People "can be taught emotional resilience, self control, the habits of optimism, handling negative thoughts and much else," Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair's biographer and the headmaster of Wellington College in Britain, wrote recently in the Financial Times.

Seldon is developing happiness courses, working with the Institute of Well-being at Cambridge, which was founded last November.

Veenhoven says that with the right combination of individual choices and government policy, nations can raise their happiness quotient by as much as 5%.

In an influential 2004 academic paper, Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist credited with launching the positive psychology movement in 1998, and Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, encouraged policymakers to consider more than economic development in their planning.

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