• Will this make us happy?
• Will an emboldened second-term government, now freed from the handbrake of its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, move further to the right?
• Will austerity be accelerated, further reducing public services and benefits?
• Will tax breaks and loopholes continue for those that need them the least?
• Is the solution to inequality more inequality?
• Will the NHS increasingly be contracted out to a private sector more concerned with profits than patients?
• Will the backbench nationalists lead a charge that pulls us out of the European Union?
• Will an invigorated Scotland, united under the SNP, reconsider its codependent relationship with Westminster and head for the exit, for independence?
• Will the United Kingdom become ever-more disunited?
You would think that with so many governments around the world struggling with similar issues—200-plus grand petri dishes—that there would be more consensus over the best way to run a country.
What system seems to work best? Where are people happiest?
In looking for answers, the Gallup organisation surveyed people across 158 countries about their happiness. In the latest edition of the resulting annual World Happiness Report (http://worldhappiness.report), the 10 happiest countries in the world were deemed to be:
9. New Zealand
If you were born into any of these prosperous, well-run, generally egalitarian nations, you should be thankful—it could have been so much worse. It could have been bottom-of-the-pile Syria, Burundi or Togo for you. The U.S. is 15th on the list; the U.K. 21st.
So what do the top-10 have in common? What makes the Swiss and the Swedes smile? Why so many cheerful Canadians, delighted Danes, frolicsome Finns?
The report identifies six key factors which contribute to the happiness ranking: “The six factors are GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations, adjusted for differences in income).”
A crucial ingredient that cuts across these criteria, the X-factor, is the concept of “social capital,” which is defined as: “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.”
Social capital describes the extent of trust, social support, and pro-sociality that exists. These things are the mark of an evolved human society—the antithesis of the kind of Ayn Rand law-of-the-jungle dystopia that is so prevalent in many parts of the world.
Writes sustainable development advocate Jeffrey D. Sachs in the World Happiness Report: “When social capital is high, individuals are more prepared to incur such individual costs for the greater good; and when most people in society behave in that manner, society as a whole benefits in higher economic productivity, stronger social insurance, greater societal resilience to natural hazards, and greater mutual care.”
Almost no-one can keep a straight face when the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Mayor of London—old Etonians David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson—inevitably utter the party line: “We’re all in this together.” We live in a deeply divided world—a world where 85 people have the same wealth of the poorest half of the global population, 3.5 billion people. But in egalitarian, truly democratic nations with high levels of social capital, the words are slightly easier to swallow.
The happiest nations are awash with social capital:
• The Scandinavian system or “Nordic model” of government features high taxes, a large, well-run welfare state, a high standard of free education and healthcare, and low levels of inequality. The machine works for betterment of the people, not the other way round. (In John Rawls “A Theory of Justice,” he demonstrates through his “original position” experiment that if people don’t know how they will end up in an imaginary society, they will generally opt for a fair, redistributive political and economic system that treats all fairly, maximising the prospects of the least well-off.) The Nordic model is a system that appears to make people happy: Denmark and its close cousin Iceland, plus Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands, are all in the top-8 happiest nations in the world. Why isn’t such a superior form of governance the rule rather than the exception? (“Yes,” people say, “but these are countries with small populations and low immigration”—as though water, sunlight and soil were only good for some trees but not others.)
• According to the World Happiness Report: “66% of respondents in the Netherlands and 61% in Sweden answered that most people can be trusted, compared with just 35% in the US and 28% in Russia. Moreover, comparing the extent of trust in the 1981-84 sampling period with the recent period, trust rose in Sweden (from 57 to 61%), while it declined in the United States (from 45 to 35%).”
• Scandinavian cities tend to do well in the famous “lost wallet” experiments in which full wallets are left lying around to see how many get returned or handed in.
• The happiest nation, Switzerland, meanwhile, is the closest state in the world to a direct democracy. There are referendums on town, city, district and national level. They don’t just scrawl an X on a ballot paper once every 5 years. The Swiss really have a say in how their country is run. They are invested in their government, and vice versa.
Blame the victims
The World Happiness Report thus reveals that our mental state is highly dependent on the kind of society we live in, and our place within it. This should be obvious. We already knew that: there is a longstanding, strong correlation between low social “class” and mental health problems.
Yet in the West, there’s a tendency to blame the victims of unhappiness or other mental distresses for their own suffering. The rationale is that these unfortunate people need to pull themselves together, think more positively, be tougher, develop better strategies, stop whining or whatever. Or have 6 sessions of CBT—that should be enough to right their faulty thinking and behaviour, to make them see the error of their ways.
The late British clinical psychologist David Smail called this wishful thinking or “magical voluntarism.” The reality, he argued, is that our problems are caused by external circumstances, the harshness of living, an oppressive, unjust society. Aside from the likes of Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney and the social environment psychologists, society’s role in mental dis-ease has generally been overlooked by a profession that for Smail is too often part of the problem rather than the solution.
Psychology, he says, has become part of the machinery of capitalism, co-opted to locate distress in the individual and so take the spotlight away from social iniquity, hierarchical structures and machiavellian manoeuvres in the corridors of power. Writes Smail: “I can think of no mainstream approach to psychological therapy which doesn’t harbour at its core a humourless authoritarianism, a moralistic urge to control, that has the ultimate effect of causing infinitely more pain than it could ever conceivably hope to cure.”
As in Bhutan, with its concept of “Gross National Happiness,” the U.K. government’s utterances and election promises around mental health are perhaps less about a genuine concern for the public’s wellbeing and more about public relations. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme is welcome, but partly helps to window dress the real agenda: cutting back on public services and serving the needs of the powerful rather than the powerless. Likewise, it's easier for politicians in India to call for counselling for suicidal farmers than to give them a fair deal. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a powerful elite peddles the myth of the “American Dream”—anybody can become anything they desire, and if they don’t they’ve only got themselves to blame—as though a profoundly unequal playing field were an irrelevance.
People are unhappy? Well, continue flogging until morale improves. Or let them eat cake.
Perhaps Smail goes too far. “There is no such thing as an autonomous individual,” he writes. But we of course do have personal power. A lot. More than we realize sometimes. Regardless of our circumstances, we always have choices, as Viktor Frankl so eloquently described. The caged bird can still sing. There is a role for talking therapies.
As Sartre wrote: “Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you.”