Switzerland is reckoned as top country in this year’s World Happiness Report, the third in a series begun in 2012, and the work of United Nations economists. Most striking about the news of Swiss supremacy in contentment — making headlines worldwide, over the last few days — has been the paucity of explanations, or certainly any exegesis offering or even pretending to depth. This is further proof of the bizarre, almost wilful, ignorance about the little Alpine champion, to which this blog has been drawing attention for a while. (See ‘Seven reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality‘)
At post-Gutenberg.com — unusually harried and pressed for time, lately — we are waiting for a chance to study the methods behind the WHR calculations, to understand exactly what is being measured and how. In the meanwhile, we will record just these reactions to other observers’ reactions: no one appears, so far, to have noticed — or pointed out anywhere discoverable by search engine crawlers — that with Iceland ranking second on the 2015 WHR list, the top two positions are occupied by rivals for the distinction of being the world’s oldest democracy.
These also happen to be countries that come to mind in connection with extreme or direct democracy, which leans heavily on referendums to make government policy. That has long been a defining feature of modern Switzerland and in the case of Iceland, is the aspiration guiding the reshaping of its government since its humiliation in the financial crash of 2008.
People apparently are happiest in countries with political systems that do not simply enshrine social equality as the highest ideal — in, for example, their constitution — but have buttons and levers its citizens can use to make the idea of government by the people everyday reality.
After Switzerland and Iceland, the famously egalitarian Scandinavian countries — and New Zealand and Australia, ranking 9th and 10th , with anti-elitist ‘tall poppy syndrome’ embedded deep in their cultures — occupy most of the other slots in the top ten.
Oranges-with-oranges comparisons within this group would be more instructive than any apples-and-oranges exercise across the globe.
Unlike the Scandinavian nations, Switzerland was until recently a so-called ‘lean welfare state’ — comparatively stingy with social benefits.
So, can we surmise tentatively that feeling that you can make a real difference in the way your country is governed outranks a social super-safety net — cradle-to-grave cossetting by the state — as a fount of joy? It is an interesting possibility. Ten years of World Happiness Reports for inspection and reflection would be helpful, but we have had only three, so far.