Greater happiness for a greater number of people Is that possible in the Netherlands?

by: Ruut Veenhoven

14 June 2016

What is the job of the government?i According to Jeremy Bentham (1789), that is ultimately to ensure greater happiness for a greater number of citizens. He viewed happiness as individual life satisfaction: ‘the sum of pleasures and pains’ in his words. Happiness could not yet be measured in his time and it was, therefore, difficult to determine how realistic that recommendation was. We are able to do that now; it turns out happiness is easy to measure by asking people how satisfied they are with their life as a whole. (Veenhoven, 1998)

Happiness in the Netherlands?

Most Dutch people are happy. This is shown by the scores they give in answer to the question ‘All things considered, how satisfied are you at the moment with your life as a whole?’ See figure 1. More than 75% give their own life an 8 or higher and only 6% score it 5 or lower. This positive picture is confirmed in research that uses other questions. The average score is 7.9 and that is high in comparison with other countries where the same question is asked. The average in Tanzania is only 2.5. (Veenhoven, 2016)

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Figure 1. Happiness in the Netherlands Answers to the question: All things considered, how satisfied are you at the moment with your life as a whole?’ Source: European Social Survey 2014

Is greater happiness possible?

Can the government do anything to improve this? Various scientists do not think so. There are psychologists who believe that happiness is largely innate or permanently anchored in the personality and that a better society will not, therefore, result in happier people. Some sociologists come to the same conclusion, because they believe that happiness is a question of comparison and that standards of comparison are continually changing. The United States is often given as an example within that context: material wealth has doubled in that country since the Second World War, but the average level of happiness has remained the same.

However, those scientists have got it wrong. Firstly, it turns out that the average happiness of citizens in a country is strongly dependent on the quality of the society. Take, for example, the above-mentioned case of Tanzania with an average score of 2.5. Secondly, the average level of happiness in countries is not constant, at least not in all countries. In figure 2, we see a steady increase in the average level of happiness in Denmark over the last 40 years.  There has been a dramatic fall in the average level of happiness in various countries; in Russia after the Ruble crisis in the mid-90s and in Greece after the economic recession of 2010.

Figure 2 also directly answers the question of whether greater happiness is possible in the Netherlands. With an average of 8.4, Denmark scores higher than the score of 7.91 in the Netherlands and the average level of happiness is also higher in Scandinavian countries and in Canada. What is possible in those countries should also be possible in the Netherlands. Do not think that this is a question of an immutable national character, because one can see in figure 2 that the average level of happiness in Denmark has risen. Such a rise has also occurred in a number of other countries. (Veenhoven, 2014) Greater happiness for a greater number of Dutch people is clearly possible, but how do you achieve that?

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Figure 2. Happiness trend in Denmark and the Netherlands

How can the Netherlands become happier?

I see opportunities on three levels: on the micro level of individuals, on the meso-level of institutions and on the macro level of the society.

At the individual level, happiness can be fostered by strengthening life skills. In that regard, it is good to remember that the difference in happiness within modern countries like the Netherlands are primarily determined by psychological factors. Some of those individual differences are determined by genetics or are difficult to change for other reasons. There are also, however, skills that can be strengthened through training, including training courses in the art of living in line with the emerging field of ‘positive psychology’. If that sector develops effective interventions, people will be prepared to pay for that. There is a growing range of training courses at the moment, but there is still a lack of clarity about their effectiveness. The government can lend a helping hand in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, as is the case with medication.

Published by  Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies