Happier World = Happier Home?

I’m fascinated by cross-national comparisons of happiness. On one hand, I’m incredulous that the measurements could mean anything, especially when I consider the cultural subjectivity of happiness and the methodological difficulties involved with gathering this kind of data on a worldwide scale.

On the other, I find there is a surprising amount of consistency in observer perceptions as well as different surveys. And, I admit it, I have the same geeky, goofy interest in lists of this type that many people do. Each suggests questions: Why should this place be happy? Why should that one be unhappy? The exercise is somehow meaningful, and even pleasurable.

A new study run by the University of Michigan, called the Happiness Index, will appear in the July 2008 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. It produced results remarkably similar to an another cross-national comparison by the University of Leicester’s Adrian G. White, which was drawn from a meta-analysis called the Happy Planet Index. (That’s White’s map, above.)

The Social Democratic countries of Northern Europe are shockingly happy (especially given that their weather is often lousy), with Denmark leading the way in the new study. The most miserable countries are hot and politically unstable–this year, troubled Zimbabwe sat at the bottom of the list. Given previous results, no surprises there.

The big surprise is that happiness seems to be rising around the world.

The Happiness Index goes back 17 years and covers 52 countries and asks the same two questions of 350,000 participants: “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy, not at all happy?” And, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”

According to the new results, happiness fell in 12 countries from 1981 to 2007, but it rose in the other 40.

Why? The basic answer appears to be that prosperity is rising in fast-developing countries like India and China. Money might not be able to buy you happiness, but misery can definitely take it away.

The researchers speculate that there are also political factors involved: Countries that democratized and/or embraced gender equality, multiculturalism, and tolerance of gays and lesbians all saw jumps in happiness. Generally speaking, these types of surveys show politically free and egalitarian societies to be happier than average.

“The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives,” says University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who directed the study. “It’s a surprising finding. It’s widely believed that it’s almost impossible to raise an entire country’s happiness level.” (Quotes from LiveScience.)

What does this have to do with parenting?

There are tremendous amounts of recent research that show that today’s couples are happier when mothers aren’t overburdened and have the freedom to choose how to live their lives–as opposed to the old days, when a woman’s main career option was homemaker.

For example, Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington found that when men do more housework, their wives find them more sexually attractive–a result replicated in other studies. Egalitarianism also has positive results for children: When sociologists Scott Coltrane and Michele Adams looked at national survey data, they found that “school-aged children who do housework with their fathers are more likely to get along with their peers and have more friends. What’s more, they are less likely than other kids to disobey teachers or make trouble at school and are less depressed or withdrawn.”

“When men perform domestic service for others, it teaches children cooperation and democratic family values,” said Coltrane, who studies the changing role of fathers in families. “It used to be that men assumed that their wives would do all the housework and parenting, but now that women are nearly equal participants in the labor force, men are assuming more of the tasks that it takes to run a home and raise children.”

The glib bottom line for guys: If you want a happier world, do the dishes!

(Revised from a post at the Greater Good science blog.)

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