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Happy, Happier, Successful

It is official – the Swiss are the happiest nation in the world! The concept of happiness is slowly making its way into the national statistics across the globe. But how can emotions be measured?

It all started In Bhutan. In the early 1970s, Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to replace the Western economic measurement GNP (gross national product) with GNH (gross national happiness) and put spiritual values in the heart of his country's economy. A few decades have passed and Western leaders started regarding happiness an important measure of social progress too. In 2009 Gallup, the American research institute, began its Well-Being Index and two years later the United Nations adopted the resolution "Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development". The UN called for: "A more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes the happiness and well-being of all peoples."

World Happiness Report

The UN resolution was followed by the first "World Happiness Report" prepared by a group of independent academics, including the economists Jeffrey Sachs, from the Columbia University, and Richard Layard, from the London School of Economics. Let's not be fooled by the name of the report, it is much more serious than it sounds and actually the question "Are you happy?" is not asked even once. The level of happiness is calculated with the following six factors: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust, freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. In this year's report the top ten happiest nations are mainly small and medium-sized European countries with high GDP. What is noteworthy is that half of the top ten are Nordic states.

Research has established that there are other crucial determinants of happiness that are relevant in the process of economic development.

Professor Bruno S. Frey

Why Switzerland?

This year Switzerland dethroned Denmark, who reigned supreme since the survey began. Does it mean that Switzerland has now mastered the subject of well-being? Or maybe life in the country of chocolate and cheese makers is a bed of roses? Well, the Credit Suisse "Worry Barometer" confirms that the Swiss do have concerns, just like everybody else. What keeps them awake at night are: unemployment, immigration issues, retirement, health, etc. Despite these fears, the Swiss have a very optimistic outlook for the future. One may think it is because Switzerland is a wealthy country. Surely, money can solve problems, but as proved by many economists before, money does not contribute to happiness once a certain level of wealth is reached. The same is true for Switzerland – although today the average income per capita is higher than in the mid-1970s, the level of satisfaction has not increased. Oliver Adler, the Head of Credit Suisse Economic Research, in his article How Is Switzerland Doing? argues that on top of wealth, "there are a number of reasons for Switzerland's prosperity, and some of them are rooted in its history." Oliver Adler's list includes: political and monetary stability, the Swiss society's inclination to compromise and efficient public authorities.

Social Capital and the Ability to Bounce Back

These factors can all be grouped under one name: social capital. More and more evidence confirms that social capital and happiness are tied together. The former is based on interpersonal relations, trust, honesty, and mutual support. The latter consist of the following four pillars: sustained positive emotion; recovery of negative emotion; empathy, altruism and pro-social behavior; as well as mindfulness. Jeffrey Sachs advocates that "societies with high social capital outperform those with low social capital in terms of subjective well-being and economic development." It also makes societies more resilient to economic crises and natural disasters. Unfortunately there is no recipe that would guarantee better social capital but one thing is certain – it takes time.

EU Takes a Look Beyond GDP

The appreciation of happiness has sped up in this millennium. Ten years ago, the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) started its program to redefine progress in order to promote understanding on what drives well-being of nations and individuals. The European Union followed the example and launched its own program called "Beyond GDP". The goal of the EU's initiative is to develop clear indicators of growth, similar to GDP but enriched by environmental and social aspects of progress. David Cameron was the first Western country leader to see happiness as one of his objectives and made the measurement of people's well-being a national statistic. National and local governments increasingly use the well-being data to respond to people's needs. Not only to improve the level of happiness, but also to influence the development and add to social capital. It is becoming a popular view that the economic model of growth that seemed universal in the last few decades has its limitations.

Political Participation Makes Happy

As Swiss professor Bruno S. Frey says in his paper on happiness and public policies: "Happiness research has clearly established that there are diminishing marginal returns to higher income in terms of subjective well-being. At the same time, research has established that there are other crucial determinants of happiness that are relevant in the process of economic development. Personal health and social relatedness are examples at the individual level, while political participation rights and decentralized decision making structures are important determinants at the aggregate level." It seems the time has come to seek new models of progress and some governing bodies have already made some steps towards it.