Wissot: Is being the 16th happiest country so bad?
Damn those Finns — for the fifth straight year they have been named the happiest country in the world. Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland also made the list of the 10 happiest places to live. The U.S. is the 16th happiest country, an improvement over the previous four years when Americans altered between 18th and 19th.
What gives here? What are frigid Scandinavian countries doing to breed warmth that the world’s reigning superpower isn’t?
My take on the U.N’s World Happiness report, which collected data from 350,000 interviewees in 95 countries, is that Americans are less happy than 15 other nations because happiness is less important to us. Sure, we pay lip service to happiness, like when parents say “they just want their children to be happy when they grow up.” But do they really mean it ? Given a binary choice between growing up to be happy or growing up to be successful, how many parents would choose happiness over success for their kids?
Moreover, how many Americans would really prefer to be living in the happiest nation instead of the wealthiest nation, the smartest nation, or perhaps the most moral nation?
I speak from experience. For most of my adult life I thought happiness was what people who weren’t successful wanted to be. A consolation prize for contented cows. The truth is, I wasn’t really success-driven. I was failure phobic. Fear of failure was my driving motivation. The strategy I chose to allay my anxieties was to accumulate as many status symbols of success, the shiny bling that insecure rich people flaunt, as I possibly could. I figured the more bling I possessed, the less possessed I would be by crippling self doubt. The bling strategy failed.
I tried therapy to no avail. I remember telling a therapist 10 years ago that even after successfully running a business for 30 years with my wife, Alyn, I still worried about the business going bust. She told me not to worry my silly little head because I probably wouldn’t live long enough to see that happen. I thanked Dr. Feelgood and left her office feeling much better about the future.
Dr. Feelgood was wrong about my departure date from planet Earth. I’m still here 10 years after she told me that death would help me relax and enjoy life more. Fortunately, my two adult daughters did not inherit their father’s demons. They are in many important ways more successful than I ever was. Boomers like myself represented the yuppies, not the hippies wing of our generation. We were the ones who wanted to “keep up with the Joneses” or at the very least “make sure the Smiths didn’t catch up to us.”
From my vantage point, the alphabet generations (XYZ) are less status conscious than the boomers were. My Gen-X daughters harbor a disdain for conspicuous consumption, as do the Scandinavian nations on the 10 happiest places list.
I have been fortunate to spend time in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. When I was in Copenhagen, I asked a bartender at a bar where I was enjoying a late afternoon Carlsberg beer why I didn’t see more high-end vehicles like BMWs and Mercedes on the streets. His answer was that the Danes consider it in poor taste to show off wealth. There were plenty of millionaires in Denmark driving modest Volvos and Saabs because they didn’t want to be seen as very rich. Think Warren Buffet — not Jeff Bezos.
Helsinki, like Copenhagen, is a beautiful city renowned for its stunning architecture and splendid museums. The Finns are also like the Danes in being blasé about the trappings of wealth. As one Finnish photographer expressed it: “We’re just satisfied with very little. We don’t have extremely successful careers. We don’t have a ton of money. We like the simple things in life, like our forest walks and hanging out with friends.” A middle school principal had this take on what matters most to Finnish people: “We do want to achieve things in our life. But it’s not like ‘ Keeping Up With the Kardashians.’ “
I know if Bernie Sanders was reading this column, he would ask why I didn’t draw any correlation between the guaranteed health care, child care, affordable housing and college tuition benefits Scandinavians enjoy and their reputation for happiness.
I didn’t for two reasons. First, the World Happiness report made no mention of Scandinavians pointing to those programs as the reason for why they were so happy. Second, even if they did, the generation in power here, my boomer brethren, has demonstrated a strong aversion to tax increases and government-run programs. Any movement in that direction would have to wait until mid century when most boomers will be pushing up flowers or gracing the insides of urns.
When that time comes, the alphabet generations will have to decide if they want to pay the higher taxation rates (the current tax-to-GDP-ratio in the U.S. is 24.5 percent. Denmark’s is 46.3 percent. Sweden’s is 42.8 percent. Norway’s is 39.9 percent.) The middle classes in these countries fork over to cover the costs of their “free” citizen-funded programs. Soaking the uber rich exclusively, limiting the tax increases to the one percenters, doesn’t produce enough revenue to pay the expenses of expansive social programs.
Knowing that money can’t buy happiness, it will be up to the alphabet kids to decide if paying higher taxes in order to enjoy a range of social benefits would make them happier than they already were.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.