Contented Norway, Stressed-Out America: A tale of two countries, and what their governments spend the people’s money on

Nearly five years ago, The Economist published a front cover featuring a scruffy-looking Viking, accompanied by the words: “The Next Supermodel: Why the world should look at the Nordic countries.” While the world’s bigger countries and current and former superpowers struggled with their problems, the Nordic countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — seemed to have their act together, winning praise over and over again for their healthy economies, relatively low crime rates and high standards of living.

Over the intervening five years, not much has changed. The Nordics continue to be strong performers in all the areas that matter. When this blog looked at countries’ performance across four indices last May — the Human Development Index, the Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Global Peace Index — the Nordics constituted at least four of the world’s 10 best countries, with Denmark taking the number-one spot. (Canada ranked either fourth or sixth, depending on whether you ranked each country by its “weakest link” or by its average score.)

Now there’s more good news for the Nordics. John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs of the New York-based Sustainable Development Solutions Network have released their 2017 World Happiness Report, and concluded that Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland were the world’s happiest societies in the 2014-16 period.* They credit Norway’s high ranking on “mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance”, as well as good management of its oil reserves, and using the proceeds from it to prepare for a better future instead of spending it all as it comes in.

“Mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance” are not words, however, that would describe 2017 in our neighbour to the south. The United States has had a memorable 2017 for all the wrong reasons — and it showed in its rank. As noted:

The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th [Note: this might be a typo — the report’s data tables show the U.S. in 14th place; it was the U.K. that was in 19th place]. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption . . . and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better.

The authors particularly singled out the U.S. government’s priorities for criticism. As they bluntly note on page 180:

America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis . . . This American social crisis is widely noted, but it has not translated into public policy. Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naïve attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed. First, most of the pseudo-elixirs for growth — especially the Republican Party’s beloved nostrum of endless tax cuts and voodoo economics — will only exacerbate America’s social inequalities and feed the distrust that is already tearing society apart. Second, a forthright attack on the real sources of social crisis would have a much larger and more rapid beneficial effect on U.S. happiness.

One could only imagine the authors’ alarm that, having just passed controversial tax reform legislation, there is now talk of targeting America’s already modest social safety net for deep cuts. As the New York Times reported on Dec. 2:

As the tax cut legislation passed by the Senate early Saturday hurtles toward final approval, Republicans are preparing to use the swelling deficits made worse by the package as a rationale to pursue their long-held vision: undoing the entitlements of the New Deal and Great Society, leaving government leaner and the safety net skimpier for millions of Americans.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other Republicans are beginning to express their big dreams publicly, vowing that next year they will move on to changes in Medicare and Social Security. President Trump told a Missouri rally last week, “We’re going to go into welfare reform.”

In fact, the core items of the social safety net already constitute a relatively small share of total U.S. local, state and federal government spending. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data show that, in 2015, only 21 percent of total government spending was dedicated to what the OECD classifies as “social protection”; that is, sickness, disability, old age, housing and unemployment support.

This already puts the U.S. toward the bottom of OECD nations in terms of the percentage of local, regional and national government spending on social protection. Indeed, given the low priority their own governments give to their well-being, not to mention other abuses like drawing local electoral boundaries to guarantee one-party rule, why shouldn’t Americans feel bitterly resentful toward their governments?

In Norway, social protection was a significant 40 percent of all government spending in 2015 despite an unemployment rate of just four percent that year and 75 percent of all Norwegians aged 15-64 having a job — one of the highest rates in the world.

That spending paid off, according to a 2017 OECD report on Norway. Not only has it helped provide the sense of well-being that the lack of prompted many Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but it is something the OECD recommended that Norway leave intact (emphasis mine):

Fiscal reform should not aim to significantly reduce the scope of Norway’s comprehensive welfare programmes and public services. These are integral to its socio-economic model, playing a key role in making economic growth inclusive and keeping well-being high. Given the fiscal rule, this means that taxation will remain high compared with many countries. Consequently, a pro-growth tax mix, strong labour skills and easier regulations for doing business are needed for the business sector to thrive in global markets.

As we end 2017, revolution is in the air as like no other time in the past 50 years, if not the past 100 years. Some look to the hard-left for solutions to the high level of anxiety, some to the hard-right. What the world could really use, though, is a bit of Nordic sense by protecting not jobs, not industries, but people.


* – Canada ranked seventh in the World Happiness Report, just behind Finland and the Netherlands. New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounded out the top 10.


Does politics give people the blues?

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, one YouTube video that went viral showed four year old Abigael Evans crying as she tells her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney”. The video was still getting views in 2015, when a commenter left a message on the site telling Abigael not to feel bad, as politics could make grown-ups cry as well.

Both she and the commenter were far from alone. A mid-May Economist article noted that young people are so turned off by politics that to even discuss such topics in a social setting is “deemed distasteful” and that it “kills the mood”.

Within a couple of weeks, I stumbled across further information about why that might be while reading Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, the English translation of a book written by German authors Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb.* In Chapter 7, they discuss the results of an experiment carried out in a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index study in which one random sample of Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, while another random sample were first asked about their political views and then about their satisfaction with life:

Beginning January 9, 2009, half of the respondents were asked political questions as usual, whereas the other half were no longer asked any political questions but were asked about their life satisfaction right away. For the latter group, the average life satisfaction skyrocketed immediately after January 9, indicating very strong context effects. (pp. 95-96)

The source of this information was a 2012 paper by Angus Deaton of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, who noted that:

People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.

Three months later, another change was made to insert a buffer between the political and life-satisfaction questions for all respondents. Immediately, this showed up as an increase in how well people rated their overall life satisfaction compared to the answers they gave when there was no buffer. As Deaton observed, the jump in reported life satisfaction was equivalent to the expected effects of “a more than doubling of per capita GDP”.

While this says something about the risk that one set of questions in a survey could accidentally influence how people respond to the questions that follow, it also says something about why Canadians and others around the world are tuning out on politics: if having politics on their mind makes them feel worse about life, and not thinking about it makes them feel better, the sensible thing to do is to give politics no more attention that necessary.

Politicians who wish to make the societies they govern happier places to live, and to keep the dreaded it’s-time-for-a-change sentiment at bay until a later election, might find that their best bet is to simply stay out of their constituents’ faces. And as for the large numbers of politically disengaged people, about which there has been much hand-wringing in recent years, the best policy might be to simply leave them in peace.

* – Available at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg at 306 WEI 2015.

Six resolutions that could help make your New Year a happier one

It’s customary to start a new year with the hope that it will be a happy one, but what exactly can we do to improve the odds of a favourable outcome?

Some of the answers might lie within a well-known global study called the World Values Survey. In 2006, pollsters asked 2,164 Canadians how happy they were with their lives, along with a wide range of other questions about their lives that can help determine what separates the 46 percent of Canadians who said they were very happy with their lives from the other 54 percent.

Based on the strongest differences between those who were very happy with their lives and those who were less so, here are six worthwhile resolutions that could help make your New Year a happier one.*

1. Join a gym or a sports team. The healthier Canadians felt, the happier they were likely to be.  So hit the gym or get involved in a sports team. Not only will the exercise make you feel healthier — it’s an easy way to meet others and strike up new friendships and acquaintanceships.

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by self-assessed health:

In very good health: 61%

In good health:  40%

In fair health: 28%

In poor health: 16%

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by involvement in sport/recreation groups or organizations:

Active member of a group/organization: 52%

Inactive member of a group/organization: 48%

Not a member: 42%

2. Get into better financial shape. The better people felt about their household’s financial state, the happier they tended to be.  So don’t be lulled into buying now and paying later by today’s unusually low interest rates — keep those debts under control.

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by perceptions of household’s financial state:

Finances in good shape (8-10 out of 10): 59%

Finances could use some improvement (6-7 out of 10): 39%

Finances in dire need of improvement (1-5 out of 10): 26%

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by household income:

$100,000 or more: 57%

$50,000 to $99,999: 45%

$20,000 to $49,999: 44%

Under $20,000: 37%

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by statement best describing household finances over the past year:

Saved money: 53%

Just got by: 42%

Spent some savings and borrowed money: 41%

Spent most/all of savings and borrowed money: 39%

3. Be accommodating, but not too accommodating. It doesn’t pay to be a martyr. If you feel that people routinely take advantage of you, it’s likely taking a toll on your satisfaction with your own life. So, if necessary, find an assertiveness training program and start making use of the most potent word in the English language: “No”.

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by how free they feel from being taken advantage of:

Rarely/never taken advantage of (8-10 out of 10): 58%

Occasionally taken advantage of (6-7 out of 10): 42%

Frequently taken advantage of (1-5 out of 10): 35%

4. Keep an eye open for a charitable or humanitarian organization to join. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed that it’s being happy that makes people good, not the other way around. So, if you want to meet up with some people who are happy enough to want to do some good in the world, keep your eyes open for charitable or humanitarian organizations that are looking for assistance.

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by level of involvement in charitable/humanitarian organizations:

Active member: 56%

Inactive member: 42%

Not a member: 42%

5. Take charge of your life — don’t presume that the stars or the spirits have already mapped out your life for you. The more control Canadians felt they had over their lives and the less they felt themselves subject to fate, the happier they felt they were with their lives. So, if you’re involved in any organization or belief system that tells you your options are limited — from astrology to certain religious groups that attempt to micro-manage their believers’ lives — and you’re privately unhappy, start planning an exit.

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by perceived influence of fate in their lives:

Fate plays little/no role (8-10 out of 10): 51%

Fate has some role (6-7 out of 10): 39%

Fate plays a major role (1-5 out of 10): 39%

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by perceived level of choice and control over their own lives:

High degree of choice/control (8-10 out of 10): 54%

Moderate degree of choice/control (6-7 out of 10): 32%

Low degree of choice/control (1-5 out of 10): 36%

6. Tired of the boss always looking over your shoulder? Get a new one! When Canadians were asked how much independence they have in the workplace, it turned out that more independent workers — the ones who were left alone to get on with their jobs without being second-guessed — were the happiest people. Since it takes a happy person to be a good person, organizations with a strong command-and-control culture — such as call centres and airlines — might want to ask what cost this imposes on morale and customer service. So, if you’re in an environment where you’re being constantly micromanaged, consider making this the year that you find yourself a new job or upgrade your education to expand your career options.

Percentage describing themselves as “very happy”, by level of on-the-job independence:

High level of independence (8-10 out of 10): 52%

Moderate level of independence (6-7 out of 10): 37%

Low level of independence (1-5 out of 10): 35%

* – Data weighted by province and gender. Source: World Values Survey

Footnote: Other Canadians who tend to have higher levels of life satisfaction include those with strong ties to friends (51%), those with a solid religious faith (52%), those who feel they can trust others in their neighbourhood or people they know personally (52%), active members of professional organizations (55%), married people (54%), people who strongly agree that they seek to be themselves than to follow others (52%), and people who say it is very much like them to help others (51%).

Weekend Update: The latest insights from the world of research

Have you ever had one of those weeks where it seems like Monday morning and Friday night were just 48 hours apart because you had so much on the go? That’s what the previous week was like for this blogger.

Suddenly it’s the weekend and I notice that it’s been an unusually long time since I’ve posted anything new. Indeed, I do have something good in the works: a historical piece on Transair, Winnipeg’s former hometown airline, which has become a labour of love for me. I’m hoping to have that ready to post next weekend.

Other people have been working away at their own endeavours, too — researchers and scientists all over the world trying to figure out what makes our world what it is. They continue to come up with some interesting findings that are worth sharing here.

Using shame and guilt to try to get young people to change their ways can backfire. In a joint effort, researchers at Indiana University and Northwestern University looked at the effectiveness of ads that tried to steer young people away from drinking, smoking and other vices by trying to induce shame or guilt. They found that, far from steering young people away from these vices, these ads actually steered young people toward them by putting them on the defensive and leading them to underestimate their own vulnerabilities. “These ads may ultimately do more harm than good,” concluded Prof. Adam Duhachek of Indiana University.

When is sex not sex? Researchers at Indiana University presented 204 men and 282 women in that state with a list of 14 sexual behaviours and asked if each behaviour constituted “having sex” with someone. Some people might be surprised to hear that three-in-ten respondents (30%) denied that oral sex constituted “having sex”, and that one-in-five (20%) said that anal sex didn’t count.  No word on whether or not they’d feel the same way if they caught their mates at it with someone else.

Languages tend to simplify as they become more widespread. Two researchers, one from the University of Pennsylvania and the other from the University of Memphis, found that languages tend to evolve and simplify as they spread throughout the world so as to become more easily learned.

Gary Lupyan, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, noted in a recent paper published in the Public Library of Science that “as a language becomes more popular, as it spreads beyond its original place, different types of people with different backgrounds and cultures need to learn it,” and that the language’s grammatical rules begin to simplify. Thus, the most complicated languages tend to be those restricted to fairly limited areas, such as the Icelandic language and the multitudes of Native American and Australian Aborigine languages.

Ever wonder why backpackers tend to be happy-go-lucky types? A joint study by the University of California at San Diego and The Netherlands’ Leiden University found that people who are happy tend to feel less need for the comfort of the familiar and are more likely to seek out adventures and new experiences. Unhappy people, however, tend to value things that are familiar and comforting. “Familiarity signals safety, which is pleasant in an unsafe or stressful context but might actually get boring when all is going fine,” said researcher Marieke de Vries of Leiden University.

Social tolerance, freedom of choice and faith among keys to happiness, say researchers

If you’ve ever been a university student, it’s easy to develop an aversion to academic journals. Because of the meticulous standards required  for publication — everything has to be carefully worded and backed up by evidence — these articles are not as “punchy” as the articles you’d typically see in a newspaper or magazine.

It’s too bad it has to be that way. Sometimes these journal articles contain interesting bits of information that don’t make the news.

In 2008, four academics from three universities in the U.S. and Europe combined forces in a quest to find out why some people are happier with their lives than others.

To do this, they looked at how people answered a standard question about their happiness with life in 52 countries around the world, as well as how they answered other questions about their lives.

Some of their more notable findings:

1. Economic development — such as rising incomes — plays a role in boosting happiness. However, money was not everything. Three other things that go hand-in-hand with a happier life:

  • Social tolerance (“living in a tolerant social environment is conducive to happiness for everyone”)
  • Religious involvement (which “provides a sense of predictability and security” according to the authors)
  • Democracy (“the citizens of democracies tend to be happier than those of authoritarian societies”)

2. The biggest increase in happiness can be found among those who move out of poverty and into what some might call “the middle class”. But once people reached the middle class, moving up into wealth had little effect.

3. Freedom of choice — the ability to shape one’s own destiny — also tends to make people happier. Yet, the researchers also found that freedom of choice is tied to the three points discussed above.

  • Those who are hard up for money or up to their eyeballs in debt often have fewer choices in life than those who are financially secure.
  • Those who live in democracies tend to feel that they have more choices than those who live in more dictatorial countries.
  • Those who live in socially tolerant countries are more likely to feel in control of their destiny than those who live in less tolerant places.

The last two points are backed up by the fact that people who live in countries with low levels of corruption and where men and women are treated as equals are more likely to say that they’re happy than those who don’t.

Another interesting point that the researchers uncovered: The “good old days” might not have been as good as some people think.

They uncovered this when they looked at archived data showing how happy Americans were with their lives, dating back to 1946.

From 1946 — when Americans were still euphoric about the end of World War II one year earlier — there was a modest (but significant) decline in their happiness that continued until 1979. The trend bottomed out that year, with American happiness showing steady, modest improvements from 1980 through to at least 2006.

The steepest increases in happiness in recent years, however, have been in India, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South Korea.

Argentina, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden have also been on the right track according to the research.

The countries that have been on the wrong track: Austria, Belgium, the U.K., and western Germany.

Based on these findings, what can governments do to make people happier? (These conclusions are mine, not theirs.)

  • Focus on getting people out of poverty, and on preventing the middle class from falling into poverty.
  • Embrace and promote social tolerance; no good comes from making people feel marginalized for being different.
  • Don’t devalue the positive effect that religion can have on peoples’ lives (and I write this as an agnostic!) Create a climate where people of all theological persuasions can feel at ease.
  • Don’t tolerate corruption, and foster a culture of openness. People have a right to know what their government is up to, and to have access to decision makers without having to pay $1,000 per plate for the privilege.

Want to read the whole journal article? You can find it here:

Development, Freedom, and Rising Happiness: A Global Perspective (1981–2007) by Ronald Inglehart, Roberto Foa, Christopher Peterson and Christian Welzel.