In response to my last column on the absolute shit show the 2016 presidential election has become, one of my relatives wrote back to me and suggested I “control my rage” and then implied, with hardly subtle irony, that I should vote for Hilary. Ah, I just love how nurturing and supportive my family is. Just kidding, ML, you know I love you! But don’t worry about me, folks. The tone of my column may play at barely sublimated anger, but it’s really just false outrage done for your amusement and edification. Though I may shake my head in wonder at some of life’s folly, I’m actually about as happy a dude as you are likely to find. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I live in Colorado (and you know what that means- wink, wink).
Yes, I am merely making a joke here, and any good Buddhist knows that true happiness comes from within, not legal weed for recreational use, but don’t overlook the vital role our cultural and geographical environs can have on our general happiness quotient. Think for a moment of what you believe the ten happiest countries in the world are. If you have travelled extensively, I’ll bet you get at least half of them. In order, they are: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden. So what can we deduce from this list? What do they all have in common? Clearly, it’s not tropical weather and golf courses.
Now let’s be clear from the onset, none of these are third world countries. Denmark is hardly Bangladesh or Ghana. But while there is some correlation with affluence here, it is more of a threshold setter than it is a bottomline cause. For example, only Norway is one of the eight wealthiest nations, and while Qatar, Singapore and, Luxembourg might be the wealthiest nations in the world, none of them are the happiest. Meanwhile, Iceland, which came in at an impressive third on the happiness scale, recently suffered through a financial crisis that devastated their economy. And they barely have sunlight half the year. I mean it is called “Ice- land”, after all- not exactly a marketing coup by the nation’s tourism bureau. And where does the ol’ U.S. of A, the land of opportunity and prosperity, the seventh wealthiest nation, land on the happiness list? Not bad- we’re 13th.
Now the obvious commonality to go for here would be the economic and political systems of these ten happiest countries. Almost all of them are socialist democracies, but I am going to avoid making this political, especially after my aunt’s rejoinder earlier this week. No, I will avoid my pinko commie leanings for just a moment and point instead to a larger social factor at work here: a sense of community.
Back in 1996, I spent two months traveling around Europe during my summer break from teaching at an East coast boarding school. Inspired to catch up with an old girlfriend from Denmark who I unfortunately came to learn had moved onto a remarkably tall and handsome chap from her own country (damn, Scandinavians are tall and gorgeous!), I spent the first couple weeks of that trip in Copenhagen and Stockholm. Beyond the picturesque homes and storefronts of these quaint cities on the sea, what I found so remarkable was their commitment to a shared vision, a common sense of well being.
In fairness, I remember little of those two weeks as my consumption of overpriced beer at all-night jazz clubs may have impaired my powers of discernment just a bit. I do remember, however, stumbling back to my hostel just as the sun was rising after one particularly festive evening. Walking through the quiet town with few around me, I came upon a pedestrian crossing for what may have been a heavily trafficked road in the middle of the day, but was now clearly vacant as far as the eye could see. Though the light was red, I looked quickly in each direction and headed on my merry way, much to the noticeable disappointment of the local onlookers on the other side. As I approached them, I could sense that I had violated their moral code, that for them, rules were a common bond that informed the understood social contract: We act for the good of all, not just when it meets our individual needs.
Now, I know that most of us in the United States laugh at this story. Most Americans will point out the inefficiency of waiting for a light when there is clearly no car coming, but since when did efficiency and time management equal happiness? What are you saving up those moments for? More of the drudgery of an unfulfilled life at a desk job working your ass off so that you and the kids can own a bigger house and more useless crap to fill it with? These nations are happy because they recognize that the real key to a life well lived lies not in what we do, but rather whom we do it with; it lies in our connection with others.
Yes, these folks pay higher taxes (the lowest tax bracket in many of the Scandinavian countries hovers around 40% or more), but they see this as an investment in a collective goal. As individuals, we struggle to find meaning in our individual existences, but these folks find their purpose in a larger cultural identification. It is this calling to a goal greater than self that resonates with them and gives them a sense of satisfaction with their lives that we in America often lack. So thank you Danish citizens for teaching me to wait for the light to turn green. I think you can call me happy.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com