Noah Feldman

If World Happiness Reports Make You Miserable, Join the Club

The annual World Happiness Report came out this month and, sure enough, the usual rich Nordic and northern European countries clustered at the top. Finland and Denmark ranked as the happiest and second-happiest corners of the planet, and the top eight were all in northern Europe. Afghanistan, Lebanon and Zimbabwe brought up the rear, as war-torn and impoverished countries always do. Data for the survey, issued by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations affiliate, was compiled before the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine (No. 98) by Russia (No. 60) presumably reduced human happiness pretty much everywhere.

The US was No. 16, about where it usually shows up. For a country supposedly dedicated to “the pursuit of happiness” — not to mention self-boosterism — the result is always a bit disappointing. Americans wonder at it, shake their heads and ruminate in their political silos about the causes. There’s often a big difference between how people feel about their individual well-being and what they think about the state of the nation.

And every year I gnash my teeth. Ranking happiness like a medal count at the Olympics makes little sense. To begin with, ranking comparative happiness is only logically coherent if we have an agreed-on conception of what it is. We don’t. It isn’t an abstractly measurable quantity.

To talk about it, much less purport to measure it, is to express a belief about what it should mean. Self-reporting from different countries therefore doesn’t reflect standards that are common from place to place. It reflects the way people in those countries conceptualize happiness and the way they measure themselves against their own conceptions.

Today, in ordinary American English, “happiness” means something more like smiling joyfulness, whether deeply felt or merely passing. Americans are a smiley people, judged by the world’s cultural norms.

If we applied the American definition of happiness to a world index, the Scandinavians would not come out on top. Their version of happiness is different.

The most important observation about true happiness is that it is very different from the simple feeling of pleasure or enjoyment. The word itself has a complex history in English. But when we speak of it as a human ideal, we are, or should be, referring to a specific meaning: happiness as well-being or human flourishing or thriving.

This is what Aristotle called “eudaimonia” and defined as living well and faring well. It is what Thomas Jefferson was referring to in the Declaration of Independence when he put the pursuit of happiness alongside life and liberty in his troika of inalienable rights. His 18th-century “happiness” was meant as a translation of Aristotle’s notion, via the Latin felicitas. Jefferson’s ideal happiness was something deeper than the smiliness of today.

To be sure, there are different ideas about what constitutes human flourishing or thriving. How important is it, for example, to be contented with your lot? Some people would say that it’s the secret to flourishing. Others would say that accepting the world around you makes you less likely to be motivated to improve it, or yourself, or your circumstances.

The second important aspect of the word happiness in English is its etymological association with luck or fortune. The word “hap” means luck, as in happenstance. To be happy once meant to be lucky or fortunate, at least to English speakers.

Luck obviously plays a big role in the various conceptions of happiness measured in the world report. No one chooses where they are born or whether they are enter the world rich or poor. The luck of being well fed and healthy undoubtedly explains some of why citizens of richer countries on average tend to say they are happier than those of poor ones.

Even the human connections that we forge over a lifetime have a big component of fortune to them. We may choose our non-familial relationships, but it takes luck to be in a position to cultivate them. In fact, it takes fortune to be born into a situation where you have the capacity to try to make yourself happy, whether by forging bonds to others or by other means.

Acknowledging the good-fortune component of happiness — as Aristotle himself did — gives a reason to look askance at the typical interpretation of the global surveys. Ordinarily, the point of these indices, whether for freedom or gross domestic product or literacy, is to motivate policy makers to improve their ranking.

The nominal idea is that no country wants to be lower in the rankings than it “should” be. This is the ideology of simpleminded meritocracy. We rank all the pupils from first to last on the dubious theory that the ranking will motivate everyone to work harder, especially those at the bottom.

But to the extent that luck contributes significantly to the happiness index, the ranking isn’t going to motivate anyone. People in Rwanda (No. 143 and a perpetual low finisher) know that they are struggling with violence and poverty. Presumably they want to improve their lot — but not because they want to rank higher on the happiness index. The Finns may enjoy being told they are the happiest people on earth. But they won’t set their social policy to win this race in particular.

Ranking happiness, or trying to, expresses a fantasy that it is some attainable quantity — and that someone else might have more than we do. Happiness as well-being is a wonderful goal to set for ourselves, individually and collectively. But ranking it, for a person or a country, misses the point of happiness itself.