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Real National Happiness

While living abroad for the past 14 years, international friends have sometimes fussed at me about America’s seeming indifference to issues affecting the rest of the world. To them, Americans are too smug, especially with regard to our way of life. Apparently, our sense of entitlement to a high standard of living is annoying.

On the other hand, it’s easy for Americans to rationalize that we’ve worked hard and have earned every bit of our success. Some say that the rest of the world simply envies us, including those miserable Europeans with their excessively taxed welfare states.

They might point out that illegal immigrants are proof that outsiders basically desire to engage in America’s special pursuit of happiness. After all, you just can’t beat the unsurpassable bliss that can only be derived from McMansions, SUVs, double cheeseburgers and “American Idol.”

That said, I’ve often wondered just how happy we Americans are.

Interestingly, the World Values Survey offers the latest assessment of reported happiness and life satisfaction among 97 nations.

It turns out that the United States currently ranks 16th.

Only16th? Well, maybe 16 out of 97 isn’t that bad, especially compared to the plight of the three most unhappy nations on earth; Moldova, Armenia and Zimbabwe.

So who’s ahead of us? To name a few; Denmark (ranked 1st), The Republic of Ireland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand. Just your basic “excessively taxed welfare states.”

But what might surprise many Americans is that a couple of less-wealthy nations (Puerto Rico and Malta) as well as two poor countries, Columbia (ranked 3rd) and El Salvador (11), are also ahead of us. And among the 33 most-happy nations, the likes of Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Thailand, Nigeria and Brazil rank not too far below the U.S. Economically, these countries are dwarfed by the G8 nations, of which America prides itself as captain. In fact, of the G8, only Canada, the U.S. and Britain were in the top 33.

Regarding these rankings, Moises Valasques-Manoff, staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, observed that the U.S., at 16th and with the world’s largest economy, has “largely stalled in happiness gains” despite ever more buying power. In fact, Americans are now twice as rich as they were in 1950, but no happier. He also observes that two other rich nations, the United Kingdom and Germany, show downward happiness trends.

Just so happens that rich nations such as ours devour the vast majority of the world’s natural wealth. By some estimates, the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of its resources. But, by measure of the WVS, that still doesn’t make us as happy as the El Salvadorians.

The bottom third of the list is made up largely of a mix of extremely impoverished countries (e.g., Zambia, Tanzania, Ethiopia) and failed states such as Iraq and Rwanda. But also among the unhappy third are several not-so-poor nations. These include newly oil-rich Russia (fellow G8 member) and the Ukraine, whose respective efforts toward developing civil society and democratic reforms have stalled in recent years. Obviously, people living in squalor and/or under unjust systems are not going to be happy.

So with regard to happiness and consumption, what does such global disparity have to do with the American church? First of all, we should note that nowhere do the scriptures suggest that conspicuous consumption is the key to happiness. And perhaps church folk need a reality check that there’s simply not enough resources for all 6.6 billion of the world’s inhabitants to consume at the rate of a typical American.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI criticized a world with luxury for a few and poverty for many. He also called for moderate lifestyles to ensure fair distribution of wealth amid a scramble for natural resources.

In line with this call, perhaps the key to real American happiness will be found in moderating and downsizing. Hopefully, more joy will be evident when we realize that happiness is best pursued collectively as opposed to individually.

And perhaps we might begin to comprehend that the happier, middle-income nations of the world (e.g., Thailand, Mexico, Guatemala) are actually onto something. At least at the grass-roots level, their cultures tend to value consensus building. Even though they’re not the richest, they’re neither the poorest. What they seem to understand better than us is what “enough” means.

So what if we Americans willingly down-size our consumption footprints to be more in line with that of the typical Brazilian? That would mean we still have enough food and other stuff, but not too much. As a result, might there be additional resources, financial and otherwise, to help the Ugandans meet their Millennium Development Goals? And wouldn’t overall happiness increase, both here and there?

The painful truth is that if we don’t voluntarily begin to moderate in a sensible fashion, then the increased scarcity of many essential natural resources will brutally force us all to downsize. And no one will be happy.

Rick Burnette is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionary in Thailand.