The Geography of Bliss (2008) asks which nations are the happiest on Earth, and what it is about these countries that makes their citizens so joyful. The answers to these questions reveal some fundamental truths about our many cultural differences, as well as the many similarities and contradictions we share.
The idea of happiness research may strike you as strange. Is it even possible to scientifically measure happiness? Or is it a subjective and elusive quality?
Well, if you’re looking for the latest research on happiness, the best place to start is the Netherlands, where annual happiness conferences are held for researchers to compare their notes and methodologies.
Recently, the Netherlands has become something of a Mecca for happiness, and the Dutch professor Ruut Veenhoven has become its prophet. Veenhoven’s Journal of Happiness Studies is a highly influential publication and his World Database of Happiness is a vital resource for many of his peers, including the author himself.
The Database is a collection of statistics and results from research conducted around the world, and by bringing this information together, a great deal of insight can be obtained.
For example, the database makes it quite clear that married people are happier than singles, Democrats are less happy than Republicans, the rich are happier than the poor and women are just as happy as men.
But not all of the data is quite so clear-cut. In fact, some of it is contradictory: in many of the world’s happiest countries, for instance, suicide rates are higher than average. And while religious people are generally happier than the nonreligious, it’s the secular countries that are ranked the happiest.
It’s no surprise that the database is kept in the Netherlands, since many studies and articles in it show the Dutch to be among the happiest people in the world.
The question then becomes, why? Which conditions contribute the most to happiness? For the Netherlands, relevant factors could include being a democratic and wealthy European nation with a functioning welfare system. Tolerance is another potential reason for their happiness; the Dutch are famed for their tolerant attitude toward prostitution, drugs and immigration.
But how does one measure happiness anyway?
Well, there are many methods, some of which are highly dubious – to put it nicely. While counting smiles might get you mixed results, asking people to rank their own happiness is a surprisingly accurate way to go.