Some of you probably know about the so-called “happiness index” that has been published on a regular basis for some time now. It lists the countries of the world on the basis of their ‘happiness’ and obviously, the index has a way of establishing such ‘happiness’ – a number of criteria, that is. This is the explanation that is given on how the results are established.

“The report measures how effectively countries’ residents use their resources to achieve long and happy lives. Nations are rated according to four factors – ecological footprint, inequality of incomes, life expectancy and wellbeing. Somewhat surprisingly, Western countries with high GDPs fare badly in the list. No European countries appear in the top ten, the UK comes in at 34th place, and America languishes at number 108. Instead, the highest ratings go to countries in Asia-Pacific and the Americas, which achieve high life expectancy and wellbeing with low ecological footprints. High levels of inequality of incomes within a country drag ratings down considerably, as the research found that this has a strongly adverse effect on happiness.”

After looking at the brief description of the 12 top countries or nations, combined with the four factors or criteria listed above, I have to disagree with the observation in the quotation, that it is “somewhat surprising” that “Western countries with high GDPs fare badly in the list”. It is not surprising at all! When will people stop thinking that financial wealth is the indispensable condition for happiness or contentedness? Let me explain why I say this by considering the 12 nations that come out tops.

But first, an anecdote to set the tone for what is to follow. Years ago, in the course of a conversation with a friend of mine, who was a member of our philosophy reading group and an avid movie buff, he remarked that the unhappiest person he knew was also the wealthiest one. This was while we were discussing the meaning and conditions to attain happiness, and the conversation ranged from Aristotle’s views on this to those of Shaftesbury and Schopenhauer. The person he was talking about, he said, was his uncle, who was wealthy enough to have retired before he turned forty, and who, since that time, has spent most of his time on his yacht.

To most of us gathered around the table that seemed like a life of bliss, and when we said so, he smiled and added that the problem had to do with his uncle’s vast wealth. He could never relax and just enjoy himself – from morning till evening he sat staring at his computer screen, checking stock markets all over the world, shifting his investments around from one stock to the next, fearful that market fluctuations would diminish their value. This made complete sense to me, and reminded me of the song rendered unforgettably by Janis Joplin – Me and Bobby McGee – in which there is a line that goes: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”. One could easy replace “freedom” with “happiness”.

Consider the 12 nations listed as the happiest in the world. They are, from number 1 through to number 12 (and I’ll bet that those people who haven’t read the article will be astonished to see where these countries are situated geographically, because we are generally conditioned to believe that western countries are the proverbial bee’s knees): Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu (East of Australia, near Fiji), Vietnam, Panama, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Thailand, Ecuador, Jamaica, and Norway (at number 12).

What strikes one immediately about this list is the fact that only one European country made the list, namely Norway. The rest (7 of them) are either Latin American (although Mexico is, technically speaking, North American insofar as it is America’s neighbour) or Asian Pacific countries (four of them). We already know that America is down at number 108, and the UK at number 34; South Africa comes in at 128th out of 140 countries surveyed. If you want to have a look at the complete happiness index map, you’ll find it here.

So how should we understand this? Consider that the four criteria are: ecological footprint, inequality of incomes, life expectancy and wellbeing. Keep in mind that “inequality of incomes” (which should perhaps have been called “equality of incomes” to avoid confusion) is a yardstick insofar as it is regarded as being crucial for the “happiness” that is being “measured” – in other words, the less inequality there is, the more happiness one can expect to find. This resonates with the work of Belgian psychoanalyst, Paul Verhaeghe, on which I have written here before. Verhaeghe points out that economically unequal societies can expect to suffer far more social ills than those societies where there is little or no economic inequality, and the happiness index confirms this.

When one looks at the 12 countries listed here, it is conspicuous that several of them reported low-income inequality, despite also having a low GDP. Other factors that are startling as reminders of what the true sources of “happiness” are include the fact that, unlike the US and South Africa, several of these countries have free universal education and healthcare. Perhaps Costa Rica, which tops the list at number 1, is exemplary in this regard, having entirely abolished its army in 1949, re-allocating the funds necessary for its maintenance towards healthcare and education. I sincerely hope some people in government read this article as a reminder of the futility of spending billions on armaments instead of on education and healthcare – if South Africa could do this, it would not only make free education a reality but also put a stop to the exploitation of the public by obscenely expensive private hospitals.

Something else that these countries share, of course, is a low ecological footprint – astonishingly, Costa Rica produces 99% of its electricity from renewable sources (where is Eskom, to learn from this?), and Vietnam is singled out as having an “extraordinarily low ecological footprint”. In addition, Vietnam also has one of the highest educational enrollments in the world (98%), and only 11% of its people are said to live in poverty, compared to 58% as recently as 1993.

All of these nations scored high regarding “wellbeing”, despite most of them showing a low GDP. It would probably amaze most people that this is the case with Mexico, which has an economy five times smaller than that of the US, and again stresses that “happiness” has very little to do with huge economic wealth. In the case of the Pacific island country of Vanuatu, another factor is conspicuous – that its communities are tightly knit, and meet regularly to discuss local questions or problems. Here is a sure indication of an important source of wellbeing – the affirmative life-experience that such a sense of participating in communal matters imparts to people.

Another important factor shared by several of these nations is high life-expectancy – even Colombia, which has suffered through civil war since the 1960s, scores high in this category. The same goes for Nicaragua. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of GDP, Bangladesh boasts a high life expectancy and low ecological footprint. What all of this emphasises is this, in my reading: if one can manage to get rid of the idea, cultivated by capitalism, that excessive financial wealth is THE condition of happiness, and realise that, as long as one has “enough” to live on, combined with access to free healthcare and education, as well as an ecologically sustainable way of living, happiness is within your reach. But this is difficult if you live in a society that blindly worships Mammon.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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