Happy Swiss

The Laughing Cavalier - Frans Hals

The Laughing Cavalier – Frans Hals

I have a Swiss student at the moment, of Italian descent. She lives in Geneva and works at the university. She seems pretty happy on the whole. But it turns out she and her countrymen are not just happy, they are positively laughing.

The Swiss are officially the happiest people on the planet. They have come top of an annual survey measuring happiness, displacing for the first time the Nordic countries. I do not know that it will make my student more happy to know that she is happier than everyone else, adding just pride to her mix of emotions, or less happy, knowing that she really cannot get any happier than she is. There is surely nowhere to go from ‘happiest’.

Or it could be that a measure of ‘national happiness’ is a nonsense to begin with. Happiness, according to the survey, is a composite measure comprising GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom to make ‘life choices’ and ‘perception of corruption’. When I think about the times in my life where I have been most happy, it has had very little to do with my nation’s GDP per capita, or my perception of bureaucratic corruption.

And while to say so is to fall into the fallacy of mistaking momentary satisfactions for the state of life in general, it remains true that happiness in a community is complex system, not an aggregate of factors. Thus a community can be ‘happy’ in spite of hardship, and dulled to life in excess. And the happiness of the community is always filtered through dense and personal affective states. The Swiss have never struck me, for instance, as a joyous and life affirming people, whatever their other virtues may be.

Unless of course we take happy to mean not content, but fortunate. I suppose, on a global scale, the Swiss are pretty fortunate, up there in the mountains with their political stability and their gold and their low perception of corruption. Perhaps there should be a table for ‘luckiest nation’ which takes into account such critical metrics as the scenery, the quality of the beer, the size of the spiders and whether their footballers actually sing the national anthem.