posted in: Core Happiness Skills | 4

My friend Frank sent me a link.

CNN recently posted a report on the happiest countries to visit, and Frank asked, “I wonder what these countries might possibly have in common?”

Here is the report link.


What do they have in common? Here is my answer:

Frank, you wonder what the happiest countries have in common. One thing I know from the literature is trust. You assess trust (often) with the lost wallet process. Wallets with money and ID are dropped randomly. Some countries return them at a higher rate. High rate of wallet return predicts high happiness ratings in surveys.

Also, ask people, if they lost their wallet, how likely is it that it will be returned? High ratings equal high cultural trust. That means high happiness ratings.

So it is a culture of trust. That is somewhat related to the Danish concept of coziness. We feel generally comfortable in the culture. (Same thing applies to business settings: Is there a culture of closeness and trust?)

Another one is a culture of fairness, rule of law. Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, point out that people in power want special treatment. They don’t think the rules apply to them. Many, virtually all authoritarian governments follow that rule. (A significant exception below!) The In-Group is treated special, the common people treated more strictly or harshly.

So trust / fairness is key. Bad countries have corruption and low levels of trust. Bribery and the like. Makes a country unhappy. Highly authoritarian governments make for unhappiness, but Singapore seems to be an exception, which is likely because while there are lots of rules, no one is exempt. Everyone has to obey the same rules, so highly authoritarian Singapore does well on happiness surveys. Rules only work when there are no exceptions.

Likely, then, the relation between authoritarian governments and low happiness is more because of the uneven application of laws. So it is good, for example, that we are all upset about NSA because they were (are?) behaving in an inconsistent way with their cultural values. After the Frank Church hearings and so on, the mandate was clearly that we don’t spy on our own people, but they have done so, and this raises unhappiness, I would predict. Our government seems more interested in controlling us, and that seems to increase with Dems and Repubs. Both parties seem to fall into the ethical trap of wanting special treatment for friends. Oil got a free pass under Bush II. Friends of Obama get a free pass today. No one is exempt from this temptation to pass out favors.

Government seems to be not terribly helpful at producing happiness, unless it, perhaps, got out of the business of governing and let people alone. I personally don’t like marijuana and its effects, but frankly, I think the experiments in Washington and Colorado are exciting, because as much as I disapprove of marijuana, I do approve of freedom.

I disapprove of the Bundys in Nevada and their showdown with the BLM, but I was horrified to find out the BLM has snipers and SWAT teams. Why? They are the BLM. Why do they need to go to war on citizens? Sounds like our government is shifting to more and more coercion and control. Bad signs for improving national happiness. The FDA also has SWAT teams trained to arrest people for selling raw milk. Ha!you might say. FDA has SWAT teams?


Finally, look at productivity as an indicator, in that these are very productive countries, in spite of being more socialized and thus expected to be less efficient. So our Scandinavian friends can teach us something about how important happiness is in terms of national success. Happiness will buffer the effects of bureaucracy.

Good question, Frank. Hope these ideas are useful. Share them as you wish.


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4 Responses

  1. Anita

    Interesting.I think you miss out on gender equality. Out of the ten happiest eight are also among top 14 on Global Gender List. (Canada and Australia not far behind though) Most of them also have strong welfare states.

    Your prediction on immigration is – at least when it comes to Sweden – probably not right. In 2013 we had 21 % of our population either born in another country or with both parents born in another country. At the same time we went from number 9 on the happiness list to number 8, despite growing numbers of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. (US foreign born population the same year was 13 %)

    • Anita

      But you are right about people liking those alike. And that there is an increasing racism in Europe. There are so many similarities to how things were before WWII, which is deeply worrying. So at second thought.. you have a point 🙂

  2. Justin

    I think what common on those countries is that majority of them are European countries. 🙂

    • Dr.J

      Yes, and an important aspect is a shared history and culture. USA is somewhat lower (not much) likely because the US culture is more mixed and doesn’t have the uniform culture. I predict that as immigration to Europe increases, the happiness will fall. Fair or not, people trust those who look and sound like they do. Diversity is better – more robust and creative – but it is more difficult, as people must rise above the innate tendency to trust those who are like we are.