Since 2012, most of the humans on Earth have been given a nearly annual reminder that there are entire nations of people who are measurably happier than they are. This uplifting yearly notification is known as the World Happiness Report.
With the release of each report, which is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the question is not which country will appear at the top of the rankings, but rather which Northern European country will. Finland has been the world’s happiest country for four years running; Denmark and Norway hold all but one of the other titles (which went to Switzerland in 2015).
The rankings are reliably discouraging for Americans, who have never cracked the global top 10. We are merely in the upper middle class of happiness—respectable, but underwhelming for a country with our level of wealth and self-regard.
Sort of like how the launch of Sputnik in 1957 led Americans to feel like their country was falling behind technologically, or how the results of international standardized tests in the 2000s led them to feel like their kids were falling behind educationally, the happiness rankings have subtly encouraged an anxiety fit for our era of self-optimization: that somewhere, other people are doing things that make them much happier than we are.
This disturbing thought has contributed to the rise of a genre of lifestyle content that aims to help unhappy Americans emulate the daily practices and philosophies of happier places, whether that means taking a dip in frigid water or making your living room super-cozy. Wanting to copy the happiest people in the world is an understandable impulse, but it distracts from a key message of the happiness rankings—that equitable, balanced societies make for happier residents. In the process, a research-heavy, policy-oriented document gets mistaken, through a terrible global game of telephone, for a trove of self-help advice. [Continue reading…]