UCL European Institute


Should we trust the Danes? The World Happiness Report 2013

18 October 2013, 12:00 am


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Time and again, economic success falls short as the sole indicator of happiness, especially when personal success is valued at the expense of social meaning.
Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen and Professor A. David Napier
October 2013

While the global financial crisis to a large extent has consolidated the view that economic progress is the single most important measure with which we evaluate the success of societies, preoccupations with the promises and failings of markets and austerity measures are momentarily sidelined when the publication of yet another national or global 'happiness-index' grabs media attention. But happiness is not a thing to be measured only economically: wealthy societies may perceive themselves as unwell even when they acknowledge their relative affluence. Time and again, economic success falls short as the sole indicator of happiness, especially when personal success is valued at the expense of social meaning.

When the attention of global media dwells principally on current and emerging economic superpowers, models of wellbeing become increasingly hard to find in societies in which hierarchies are based on prestige and personal gain. This focus on individual achievement in neoliberal contexts often leaves smaller states to suggest how happiness might relate to social well-being. In such times, those who have bought into neoliberalism's obsessive focus on individual achievement at all cost must look elsewhere to discover what makes social groups happy. According to Jeffery Sachs, of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) which is responsible for the 2013 World Happiness Report, 'There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their well-being'. According to Sachs and several other reports, some European models should, therefore, be studied more closely.

However, a policy-level shift from measuring simple economic health to measuring well-being or happiness demands new research skills in understanding a subject with a surprisingly short history. While the Eurobarometer has, for instance, measured European well-being since the 1970s, it took some time before political sentiment would coalesce around what may be called a global 'happiness-turn'. But by 2006, David Cameron summed up the presence of this growing awareness in a speech to the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference: 'It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being. Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It can't be required by law or delivered by government. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times'.

Perhaps the turning point in examining well-being as a political goal came in 2009 when Nicolas Sarkozy requested that a Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress be formed under the direction of Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen to consider the impact of economic success on social fulfilment and well-being; for it was the work of this Commission that formed the basis for the 2013 World Happiness Report in which for the first time global data on happiness was examined comparatively with a view to what might be learned at the level of policy. The Report singles out a number of European welfare states as possessing the highest levels of happiness. Indeed, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Sweden lead this list.

As the recurring number-1 country in such surveys, Denmark has given name to new trends in wellness and happiness. Francis Fukuyama's 'Getting to Denmark' (The Origins of Political Order, 2011) and happiness researcher Ed Diener's 'the Danish effect' are just two examples of the growing trend to look towards Denmark as a cure to social ills elsewhere. The press abounds with enthusiasm about what other nations might learn from Denmark--the BBC, for instance, asks "What can the Danes teach us about happiness?"-- while concerned citizens wonder about the success of the comprehensive Danish welfare state with its healthy work-life balance.

Yet, below the surface, those who look for evidence also wonder how Denmark's high levels of reported well-being relate to its reported low expectations towards life in general and its epidemic use of antidepressants - In 2011, 1 in 12 Danes were using antidepressant drugs (SSI). Should we then trust the Danes to show us how national policies may provide citizens with what really matters in life? What does the Danish case really tell us about happiness? More generally, what challenges do researchers and policymakers face when the successes of societies are based less on economic gain than on satisfaction and reported happiness?

Let's take a brief look at what matters in Denmark. Why, according to Danes, does Denmark repeatedly come out at the top of European and global happiness surveys? A new report published by the Danish Happiness Research Institute ('Danish Happiness, Explained'), attempts to solve this so-called 'Danish happiness puzzle': discounting the data on low expectations and the high use of antidepressants, Denmark emerges as a leader in happiness because of its strong civic society; its well-functioning democracy; its conditions of security, freedom and social wealth; its promotion of a good work-life balance; and, perhaps above all, its valuing of social trust. Trust, it turns out, is considered one of the most defining aspects of the good life in Denmark. Three out of four Danes believe that strangers can be trusted, and Danes in general trust the ability of Danish politicians to make decisions that are in the public interest. Measurements of social trust include trust in management, co-workers, neighbours and the police; and basic trust, above all else is linked most directly by Danes to subjective well-being (Helliwell, 'Trust and Wellbeing', 2011).

But trust is, at the same time, an enormous challenge for political leaders in countries where it is not socially endemic; for trust cannot be instilled by decree or by policy. More often, social trust is established over time and across generations. Trust is diametrically opposed to betrayal: it thrives on reliability and stability. When the United States threatens to shut itself down, there is no way of knowing the long-term damaging effects of such a decision at the level of trust. By contrast, Denmark has seen little fluctuation in social trust since the Eurobarometer started measuring life-satisfaction in the early 70s, which may even explain the comparative resilience of the Nordic countries in dealing with the recent financial crises (Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, 'The Financial Crisis and Social Trust').

That social trust and its sister, social capital, are important indicators of subjective well-being may seem self-evident to social scientists and psychologists. After all, social trust is more of an indicator of cohesion than the emotional state we call personal happiness; for social trust and social capital are expressions of our relations to one another. But social trust is complex, and its understanding multi-disciplinary. The levers that generate it are as disputed as its origins are complex. If, therefore, social trust is deemed central to a community's sense of happiness, we need to learn more about this phenomenon before policies can be implemented to encourage it. What role do such factors as 'the beauty of our surroundings', 'the quality of our culture', 'the adequacy of our housing', or 'the functioning of our institutions' (such as post-offices, doctors, schools, etc.), play in generating trust? These are just a few of the factors that need to be better understood across disciplines if a more thorough understanding of social trust is to be achieved.

Returning, then, to Cameron's well-being observations, what emerges is a key challenge for universities and policymakers to cooperate; for if we fear the sheer complexity of promoting social trust on national and global scales-if, that is, we neglect the hard task of finding collective solutions-we will surely yet again fall prey to political dogma, making happiness demands on individuals that they are not equipped socially to achieve. While happiness surveys may or may not tell us something about 'what really matters', creating resilient communities on a national and global scale remains a collective challenge for which no simple solution exists. For this reason alone, supporting both applied research at the university level and collaborative policy frameworks for discussing such research emerge as critical if governments are to move from economic indicators to the promotion of social trust.