The UN’s World Happiness Report Ranks “Socialist Friendly” Countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland & Sweden as Among the Happiest in the World

One of the most per­ni­cious, “dan­ger­ous, anti-human and soul-crush­ing” myths in the busi­ness world, writes Liz Ryan at Forbes, is the “idi­ot­ic nos­trum” that has also crept into gov­ern­ment and char­i­ta­ble work: “If you can’t mea­sure it, you can’t man­age it.” The received wis­dom is some­times phrased more cyn­i­cal­ly as “if you can’t mea­sure it, it didn’t hap­pen,” or more pos­i­tive­ly as “if you can’t mea­sure it, you can’t improve it.”

But “the impor­tant stuff can’t be mea­sured,” says Ryan. Don’t we all want to believe that? “Can’t Buy Me Love” and so forth. Maybe it’s not that sim­ple, either. Take hap­pi­ness, for exam­ple. We might say we dis­agree about its rel­a­tive impor­tance, but we all go about the busi­ness of try­ing to buy hap­pi­ness any­way. In our hearts of hearts, it’s a more or less an unques­tion­able good. So why does it seem so scarce and seem to cost so much?  Maybe the prob­lem is not that hap­pi­ness can’t be mea­sured but that it can’t be com­mod­i­fied.

Bud­dhist economies like Bhutan, for exam­ple, run on a GHI (Gross Nation­al Hap­pi­ness) index instead of GDP, and pose the ques­tion of whether the issue of nation­al hap­pi­ness is one of pri­or­i­ties. In oth­er words, “you get what you mea­sure.” In March, Lau­ra Beg­ley Bloom cit­ed the 20 hap­pi­est coun­tries in the world at Forbes, using the UN’s 2020 World Hap­pi­ness Report, “a land­mark sur­vey of the state of glob­al hap­pi­ness,” as the report’s web­site describes it, “that ranks 156 coun­tries by how hap­py their cit­i­zens per­ceive them­selves to be.”

Hap­pi­ness is mea­sured across urban and rur­al envi­ron­ments and accord­ing to envi­ron­men­tal qual­i­ty and sus­tain­able devel­op­ment met­rics. The report uses six rubrics to assess happiness—levels of GDP, life expectan­cy, gen­eros­i­ty, social sup­port, free­dom and cor­rup­tion, and income. Their assess­ment relied on self-report­ing, to give “a direct voice to the pop­u­la­tion as opposed the more top-down approach of decid­ing ex-ante what ought to mat­ter.”  The last chap­ter attempts to account for the so-called “Nordic Excep­tion,” or the puz­zling fact that “Nordic coun­tries are con­stant­ly among the hap­pi­est in the world.”

Maybe this fact is only puz­zling if you begin with the assump­tion that wealthy cap­i­tal­ist economies pro­mote hap­pi­ness. But the top ten hap­pi­est coun­tries are wealthy “social­ist friend­ly” mixed economies, as Bill Maher jokes in the clip at the top, say­ing that in the U.S. “the right has a hard time under­stand­ing we don’t want long lines for bread social­ism, we want that you don’t have to win the lot­to to afford brain surgery social­ism.” This is com­e­dy, not tren­chant geo-polit­i­cal analy­sis, but it alludes to anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant fact.

Most of the world’s unhap­pi­est coun­tries and cities are for­mer­ly col­o­nized places whose economies, infra­struc­tures, and sup­ply chains have been desta­bi­lized by sanc­tions (which cause long bread lines), bombed out of exis­tence by wealth­i­er coun­tries, and destroyed by cli­mate cat­a­stro­phes. The report does not ful­ly explore the mean­ing of this data, focus­ing, under­stand­ably, on what makes pop­u­la­tions hap­py. But an under­ly­ing theme is the sug­ges­tion that hap­pi­ness is some­thing we achieve in real, mea­sur­able eco­nom­ic rela­tion with each oth­er, not sole­ly in the pur­suit of indi­vid­u­al­ist ideals.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

How Much Mon­ey Do You Need to Be Hap­py? A New Study Gives Us Some Exact Fig­ures

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Albert Camus Explains Why Hap­pi­ness Is Like Com­mit­ting a Crime—”You Should Nev­er Admit to it” (1959)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Gee, by this mea­sure, the North Kore­ans should be the hap­pi­est peo­ple on earth!

  • gwr says:

    Just so you know… Switzer­land is not a very “social­ist friend­ly” coun­try.

  • James says:

    I think the jour­nal­ist has mis­tak­en Switzer­land for Swe­den. Swiss gov­ern­ment is very much on the lib­er­tar­i­an right polit­i­cal­ly.

  • Robert E Jensen says:

    The hap­pi­est coun­try (Fin­land) is both very cap­i­tal­ist (not social­ist) and among the least diver­si­fied nations in the world with 98.5% white and huge hur­dles to immi­grate to Fin­land.

    Are these things what real­ly make Fin­land the hap­pi­est nation on earth?

  • Jammu Saloniemi says:

    Fin­land — social­ism friend­ly — what a joke! Actu­al­ly we believe in mar­ket econ­o­my and cap­i­tal­ism. Our eco­nom­ic sys­tem is not as full of restric­tions and bar­ri­ers to mar­ket entry as it is in the Unit­ed States. And we do not make appen­dici­tis surgery or child­birth or can­cer treat­ment so impos­si­bly expen­sive that peo­ple get into debt for years.

  • Brandee says:

    Leave out least divser­fied. The top 10 hap­pi­est coun­tries are 98% whites. Then look at the bot­tom of the list to see that these coun­tries are also least diver­si­fied.

  • Brandee says:

    Look at the bot­tom of the orig­i­nat­ed list at coun­tries ranked 143–153.

  • Kendrick Keeton says:

    A strong social safe­ty net is social­ism. All coun­tries have social­ism. The coun­tries with more social­ism (social pro­grams) meet the needs of their pop­u­la­tions more ade­quate­ly.

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