What the Latest Happiness Poll Tells Us

The West comes out ahead—but does it care anymore?

Growing up in the late hippie era in the U.S., I was surrounded by claims that “capitalist” society was “plastic” and soulless. A repugnant chase after riches and status, centered on having bigger cars and houses than the next guy. All one could do was “tune out” and tune into music, drugs, and “love.”

These days we have a lot of polls saying it isn’t so. The latest is the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report, a survey of happiness in 158 of the world’s countries. The results are clear: if you want to be happy, your chances are much better in an affluent Western country.

This year’s top ten—a similar grouping to earlier reports—are: Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia. As commentators have noted, they’re all free, democratic countries with high standards of living and little exposure to violent conflict (though Sweden with its growing rate of immigrant crime is perhaps an exception).

But are people in such countries “empty,” caring only about money and status? Of course not; few people really fit that description. They may be more focused on those things than one would prefer; but they all have inner worlds with thoughts and emotions. And if there’s an ambience of freedom, prosperity, and peace, those thoughts and feelings are likely to be in a major key.

Somewhat anomalous, in eleventh place after the top ten, is Israel. A free democracy, yes; a Western standard of living, but not one of the frontrunners; and much exposure to violent conflict. So there have to be other factors that help account for Israel’s consistently high happiness scores.

In the bottom ten places are, not surprisingly, countries blighted by dysfunctional political systems, poverty, and war: Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Benin, Syria, Burundi, Togo. And while, unlike Syria, some of the small, rich Gulf Arab monarchies get decent scores (United Arab Emirates, 20th; Oman, 22nd; Qatar, 28th), in Israel’s neighborhood Syria is only the worst among the low scorers: Jordan, 82nd; Lebanon, 103rd; Palestinian Territories, 108th; Egypt, 135th.

These results give rise to a few comments:

1. The notion of “the end of history” may have been too harshly maligned. No, history has not “ended,” and clearly violent conflict remains very much with us. A quarter-century ago, however, it was argued that the democratic-capitalist paradigm had “won” against competing ideologies—and in recent years a raft of happiness surveys drive home that point. In other words, there does seem to be only one system, one way of life, that offers a path out of much of human misery. That some parts of the world or cultures remain unwilling to adopt the paradigm (if not zealously opposed to it), unable to, or both, appears to be an intractable problem for now. Meanwhile, according to the findings, powerful countries that still might be thought of as competing with the paradigm keep having much less to offer their people: Russia comes in 56th, China 83rd, compared to the United States in 15th place for human happiness.

2. Those who believe that much of the world’s turmoil originates in the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict, and that a Palestinian state would do much to calm the winds, ignore the fact that it is not statehood that makes people happy but the nature of states. In a region where other Arab countries suffer from poverty, corruption, strife, and war, the notion that the Palestinian country would “live beside Israel in peace and security” ignores all the evidence. Palestinians may find Israeli military control of the West Bank humiliating, but removing it would not solve more deep-seated problems.

3. If happiness rates tend to be high in Western countries, birthrates are low in almost all of them. It is not enough for Westerners to enjoy the good life; they also have to sustain it. Europe is now waking up—being violently woken up—from the illusion that importing Muslim immigrants is a solution to a population dearth. Meanwhile, one of the ways Israel is anomalous is its high birthrate, the highest among the democracies. A life-affirming ethos, a belief in the future, appears to be one of the things that keep Israel happy despite having to cope with terrorism and war. In that regard, instead of obsessively criticizing it and boycotting its products, Western countries might need to start looking toward Israel as a model.