May 7, 2015
So Switzerland is the happiest country in the world… As the Director of a Center whose mission is, among other things, to assess the competitiveness of nations, I wonder how happiness can be measured. In its recent World Happiness Report, no other than the United Nations claims it can do it. The study, which has been recently published, is coordinated by Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University, a scholar of tremendous reputation and credibility.
Happiness is defined as subjective well-being, which of course depends on individual perceptions, but also on social and economic context.
Jonathan Haydt's "The Happiness Hypothesis" is one most visible books on my bookshelf and impacted me a great deal when I read it for the first time. In it, the NYU Professor of Ethical Leadership describes the three conditions for people to be happy, based on his and other studies of human nature. The first factor is our history—not only our DNA but also our life experiences. For instance, Haydt argues that hardship in early life is positively related to happiness in adulthood (advice to parents: do not go too easy on your children). But it also means that how happy we are is in part pre-determined and independent of social context: in principle, someone in Afghanistan may be born more prone to happiness than a Swiss person.
The second determinant of happiness is luck. This is not something that we can control, because fortune may not always be the result of hard work or skill. Happy people are the ones who marry the right person, find the right job, live in the right country, and these are not always completely free choices (I decided to move to Switzerland ten years ago, but many of my Swiss friends were luckily born here).
Finally—and interestingly—Haydt claims that happiness comes from habits. Not only because habits reduce the uncertainty of our lives, but also because people find pleasure from repeating activities over and over again. In "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast", Laura Vanderkam writes that successful people always do the same things and in the same sequence.
Is it credible then that the Swiss are the happiest people in the world?
The United Nations report focuses extensively on the first of Haydt's factors, namely history and the context where a person lives. Switzerland has the right conditions (education, health system, innovative culture… all of the factors that consistently place it among the top three countries in the World Competitiveness Report).
Certainly once you are born here, you are in a fantastic social, economic, and natural environment. Although it is true that part of it has been built by the Swiss themselves, we can also check the second of Haydt's boxes: Swiss people are lucky.
Finally, something that I have learned in my ten years in this beautiful country is that happiness comes from the simplicity of everyday things and the lack of uncertainty: I take the train every morning at the same time and see the same people; I (almost) always know that my train will arrive on time; I know that if you run out of milk on Sunday, there is no cappuccino until Monday; I know that if I drive at 61 kilometers per hour by the lake I am going to get a ticket; and I can, in general, develop habits that make my life better…and happier.
Arturo Bris is Professor of Finance at IMD and directs the IMD World Competitiveness Center. He will be giving a keynote speech at IMD's Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) which takes place from 21-26 June 2015.
The 2015 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook will be released on May 27.