Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Happiness Index Tackles Complex Subject

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, March 25 / 24

Zack Gross

This past week, the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) Better Life Index published its 2023 findings, naming Finland to be our planet’s “happiest” country.  This project looked at six sets of criteria and also asked some more general questions of respondents around the globe.  One takeaway from the latest Happiness Index survey is that humans are generally less happy today than they were a decade ago.

The six areas that the OECD examined in 130 countries were Gross Domestic Product (GDP), social supports, health/life expectancy, sense of freedom, community/generosity and absence of corruption.  People in Finland feel that they have access to a good education, that their natural environment is well taken care,  that they have work-life balance, strong social connections and personal safety.  They don’t mind paying higher taxes, as is also true of the second place country, Denmark, as they feel it covers costs of health care, education, elder care, and other priorities to a good life.

Nordic and Western European countries dominate the top ten happiest countries, with Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom also in the top twenty.  Most happy countries are also wealthier countries, although a project researcher interviewed on CBC Radio cautioned that their survey shows that wealth doesn’t necessarily bring about happiness. 

A range of issues and situations have brought down the relative amount of happiness in our world.  Some of these are obvious and others might be less so.  The COVID pandemic has affected many people’s sense of security and community through the many deaths, long-term illnesses, fear of infection, and long lock-downs.  Young people have particularly suffered in their learning and their relationships due to the disruptions in the educational system.

The seemingly sudden impact of climate change has also affected people’s sense of security.  Droughts, wildfires, floods and more have caused massive devastation of property and loss of lives, whether you live in the rich or poor parts of our world.  The impact has been felt by farmers, the tourist industry, municipalities that must deal with clean-up and renewal, and by families that have lost homes and businesses.

It’s hard to tell some times if there are more wars going on now, or if there is just more coverage of war.  There has seldom been a time in our human history when there hasn’t been a war taking place somewhere with its inevitable result of death and destruction.  The war in Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East, the recent focus on the war in Sudan, the situation in Myanmar that has fallen out of the news, are just some examples of armed conflict now on-going that would affect people’s feeling of happiness.  Ironically, Israel appears in the top ten happy countries for 2023, but one realizes that currently this just cannot be true.

The contentiousness of politics in Canada, the US, Russia and elsewhere cannot come from, and cannot lead to, social contentment.  The growth of democracy in our world a generation ago has given way to “strong-man politics” and many autocratic regimes.  We have many important issues to deal with that take rational thought and cooperative action, but instead we face leadership in many countries whose only purpose is to win votes and take or hold onto power.  This is mirrored in society by the strong opinions expressed in social media by people who aren’t competent to comment, or who only want to sew seeds of discontent.

Young people, those under 30 years of age, are singled out in the Happiness Index report as being less happy than in the past.  The pandemic disrupted many educational and employment plans, no doubt, and also affected many as to physical health.  Inflation and the high cost of living has made it hard to make ends meet, to afford housing, groceries, transportation and recreation.  This is true of people of all ages, but might affect the confidence and security particularly of people just starting out in life, dealing with first homes, first jobs and building a family.

Definitions and expectations cause both happiness and discontent.  What is happiness?  Happiness Index researchers caution that you don’t have to be well off to be happy.  Many people who we in the rich world would consider poor, and should be unhappy are actually content, as they have strong community ties and a different sense of what to expect out of life.  I have seen this myself in visiting economically disadvantaged communities in Africa and Latin America.  There are definitely challenges but also strong senses of optimism and appreciation of what one does have.

I can’t solve the world’s problems, so I’ll leave you with a heartwarming thought on happiness.  My granddaughter competed in the Special Olympics national championships recently in Calgary.  When asked what made her most happy there, she said it wasn’t her victories and medals – it was that in every competition she improved her personal best.


Zack Gross is Board Chair of
The Marquis Project, a Brandon-based international development organization, and co-author of the new book The Fair Trade Handbook: Building a Better World, Together.

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