Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The bluebird of happiness

Psychologist Adrian White of the University of Leicester, UK, has mapped the world of happiness. He surveyed people's satisfaction with life, together with data on health, wealth and access to education. (Click to enlarge.)

Of the three countries I know best -- USA, Ireland, Bahamas -- the Bahamas comes out tops at number 5 in the world. And, yes, I'd agree, the Bahamas is a happy place. A new nation, mostly Black, reasonably prosperous (although poor by US standards), family-oriented, deeply religious. Universal health care and access to education. A stable democratic government based on British institutions. And of course, sunshine, turquoise sea, and fresh air. The Bahamas, especially the Out Islands, are presently undergoing rapid development. It will be interesting to see if their happiness rating survives cultural saturation from across the Florida Straits.

Ireland comes in at a relatively gleeful number 11. During the past decade Ireland has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the developed world to one the richest. The nation has also become dramatically secular. In my experience, the Irish are considerably happier than they were a decade ago, not least, I think, because they have thrown off the gloomy oppression of a sin-obsessed Church.

The United States makes the list at 23, behind Malaysia, New Zealand and Norway, but well ahead of Britain, Germany and France. Being the most powerful nation in the world doesn't make us the happiest.

Of course, all of this is as much of a parlor game as it is good science. Recently, we have seen a slew of books purporting to explain happiness scientifically, from the point of view of genetics, psychology and economics. Having looked at the offerings, I would say that the sources of our relative contentment remain elusive, or rather they are so diverse and general as to hide in plain sight. By and large, I would take the secret of happiness from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life: "Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

For a rather different sort of happiness map, check out the Happy Planet Index.