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Measuring happiness amid a pandemic, protests and times of change



BROOKLIN — The World Happiness Report, an annual study that, according to the report’s website, “ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be,” was published this past March, just in time to coincide with a global pandemic.

Flash forward a few months, and in addition to reeling from the coronavirus outbreak, Americans and citizens across the globe are now facing a wave of social unrest in response to the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody on May 25.

On June 5, approximately 30 participants from Hancock County and across the country tuned in for a Zoom presentation by Duke University Professor of Philosophy and part-time Brooklin resident Owen Flanagan to discuss the report’s findings amid today’s chaotic times. Flanagan explained that the factors that make a country’s population feel fulfilled are largely social and not based solely on a country’s wealth. This data can be reflected in today’s tumultuous times, he explained.

The talk was organized by Colloquy Downeast, a volunteer-run group that coordinates “small study and discussion groups organized around a specific topic on and around the Blue Hill Peninsula,” according to the group’s website.

“One would have, really, a tin ear, if one talked on this day, June 5, about happiness and well-being without being completely aware of what I’ll call, the ‘stress test’, that our own happiness and well-being is undergoing, with twin social facts. One is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and the other is the racial, social upheaval, caused by the murder of George Floyd,” Flanagan began.

This “stress test,” Flanagan explained, reflects the study’s findings, which demonstrate that when a country is economically just (not simply economically wealthy), socially fair and its people are physically healthy, the more citizens feels fulfilled. Right now, especially in America, many of these factors are not being sustained, leading to unrest, he said.

The findings

Out of the top 20 countries that scored highest in the report, the United States was ranked 18th, Flanagan reported.

Flanagan explained that the six most important factors in what makes a country’s citizens feel fulfilled are the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, social supports (such as universal health care), health, life expectancy (the United States is ranked 38th), political, relational and occupational freedom (every country in the top 20 is a democracy) and a feeling of trust in social institutions.

The countries that topped the list were mostly Nordic countries, such as Finland, Iceland and Sweden, Flanagan reported. Flanagan described these countries as “the most secular in the world,” with “relatively low economic inequality” that “tend to have the strongest welfare states,” with social safety nets that recently helped protect their citizens who lost employment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The findings contradict the long-held idea that countries with a high gross domestic product (GDP), what Flanagan explains as “the monetary value of products that a nation produces,” are happiest. In fact, Flanagan reports that a country’s GDP can oftentimes “conceal lots of inequality,” especially among races, genders and education levels.

For example, he reports that while the United States is a country with immense wealth, with “650 billionaires out of the 2,000 billionaires in the world,” that “three of them have more capital than the bottom 40 or 50 percent of people in the United States.”

In addition to happier countries being more economically equal, Flanagan explained that many countries that scored highest in the report have a higher trust in social supports and institutions.

Flanagan discussed how this can be a complicated factor when considering the United States, which as a society places immense, cultural importance on personal liberty and self-reliance.

A way that Flanagan proposed Americans could embrace social institutions is to reconsider the current perception of liberty. He suggested that social safety nets such as universal health care could be viewed as providing “freedom from worry.”

Additional data

In addition to teaching, Flanagan is a convener of the Science, Ethics and Happiness Initiative and a member of the Leadership Council for the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Part of Flanagan’s work with the UN focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals, a list of 17 goals to be accomplished by 2030 that address factors such as racial equality, gender equality and climate justice. In 2015, the United States was one of 193 countries that pledged to meet these goals, Flanagan explained.

The importance of these goals, as Flanagan reported, is that “countries that are doing the best on sustainable development, are also the ones that are doing the best on happiness. There’s almost a perfect correlation.”

Despite the positive correlation, Flanagan noted that out of the 193 countries that signed on, not one is on target to meet every goal by the 2030 deadline.

Flanagan is expected to give a second presentation sometime in August or September.

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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