Who are the happiest people in the world?

Upon their return from countries with high levels of poverty I often hear people say “they might be poor, but they seem so much happier than us.” It’s a comforting thought for those of us who live with great wealth. But it’s not true.

The 2016 World Happiness Report has just been released and it shows that the top 10 countries are all affluent industrialised nations and the bottom 10 are all nations with high levels of poverty or conflict.

This is not to suggest that money makes you happy, but that citizens of countries with higher levels of affluence tend to have access to those things that contribute to happiness, such as freedom from conflict, freedom to make choices, higher levels of health life expectancy.

Researchers used the “Cantril ladder question” to measure happiness: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

Using this measure, the 20 most happy countries were

1. Denmark
2. Switzerland
3. Iceland
4. Norway
5. Finland
6. Canada
7. Netherlands
8. New Zealand
9. Australia
10. Sweden
11. Israel
12. Austria
13. United States
14. Costa Rica
15. Peorto Rico
16. Germany
17. Brazil
18. Belgium
19. Ireland
20. Luxenberg

The 20 least happy countries by this measure were:

1. Burundi
2. Syria
3. Togo
4. Afghanistan
5. Benin
6. Rwanda
7. Guinea
8. Liberia
9. Tanzania
10. Madagascar
11. Yemen
12. Uganda
13. Burkina Faso
14. Niger
15. Angola
16. Cambodia
17. Ivory Coast
18. Comoros
19. Botswana
20. Haiti

Of course, those who live with high levels of poverty laugh, play, and find moments of joy,possess wisdom and knowledge, have hopes and aspirations, but they are also denied many of those things that lead to high levels of satisfaction with life. I am thankful to live in a country that ranks in the top 10 for levels of life satisfaction and happiness. I did nothing to deserve or earn it. I was just lucky to be born here. It seems only right then that I should do all I can to help create a world where every person in every nation is able to enjoy those things that contribute to a more satisfying life.

The greatness and the blindness of us all. Reflections on a visit to George Washington’s farm

I am in Virginia, United States of America, for a conference. Two days ago I travelled to the farm and mansion of George Washington, the great military leader who triumphed over the British in the war of independence and who went on to become the first President of United States.

The estate is magnificent. Grassy fields and forests overlooking the Potomac River. And Washington himself is lionised, his story surrounded with mythology and deep reverence. Weave your way through the mythologies and two things are clear. First, Washington had a number of opportunities to seize absolute power and on each occasion he laid them aside in order that the republic might succeed. It seems to me that this alone confers greatness upon Washington. He had wielded power of an almost absolute nature during the war and it surely must have been a seductive force, yet he resisted.

The second indisputable fact about Washington is that he was a slave owner. He and his wife had 450 slaves working their estate. He could have manumitted every one of them and given them a share of the estate, but he did not. He did set his slaves free upon his death, which suggests he recognised their longing for freedom, yet for one reason or another chose to keep them in a state of oppression & exploitation throughout the course of his life.

It’s a vivid reminder that we are all creatures of our age, that at the same time that greatness lies within us, so does blindness to the evils in which we are complicit. And I’m not sure there is an awful lot we can do about it, for the very nature of moral blindness is that you don’t see that to which you are blind. Perhaps the best we can do is to listen to the whisperings in our heart, to be attentive to the doubt, and to open ourselves up longings and pain of others.

New Year’s Eve 2016. A Year to Love

I am spending New Year’s Eve on Lord Howe Island with Sandy and some friends. Yesterday I wandered through the Lord Howe Island museum and came across an exhibit that quite moved me. On June 16, 1951 two young men, Tom Payten and Bryant Smythe, set out on a fishing trip. Later that day Tom’s father wrote this in the front of his bible.

“Last saw my dearest boy Sabbath 16 on his way fishing. Weather getting worse all day

The boys didn’t return that day and the next day Tom’s father made another entry

“Sat night the longest night of my life. Still hoping.

On the 23rd another entry

“Sabbath again – 23. All hope gone – he will never come back again.”

The love of the father for his son is heavy in every letter of every short sentence. The pride of the first entry dissolving into fear and hope before collapsing into despair.

“He will never come back again.”

It reminds me that life is beautiful yet fragile, that we rush headlong into life and it throws up unexpected joys and griefs, but that above all it is made rich by love – the love of two friends sharing a fishing trip, the love of a father for a son and son for father.

As I head into a new year I do so with the determination that I will make 2016 a year rich in love; that I will take time to love and be loved; that I will create lots of space in my life for my children, to cherish Sandy, to enjoy family and friends, and to reach beyond these circles to be a lover of the wounded, vulnerable and oppressed across the earth.

On Turning Fifty

I turned 50 today. It’s one of the birthdays with a zero in it, which is supposed to invest it with greater significance than any other. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s a good opportunity to reflect.

If you had asked the 20-year-old Scott Higgins to describe where I would be, who I would be, and what I would be doing at 50, I’m not sure I would have come remotely close to getting it right. Life is like that. It is filled with unexpected twists and turns, some that are delightful and some that are painful, and it shapes us in unexpected ways.

At 50 I have come to appreciate that life is filled with shades of grey and that very little is black and white. Where I once lived with a strong sense of certainty about everything, I’m now satisfied with convictions and hunches.

At 50 I have laid aside my rose coloured glasses in favour of multi coloured lenses that are much more rewarding. Life has thrown up challenges that have stripped me bare, gutted me emotionally, and thrown my world into disarray. But life has also granted me exquisite pleasures, experiences that have drenched me with joy, and surrounded me with love.

At 50 I have come to realise that every person has an extraordinary story to tell, and that whenever I stop to listen to their stories I am blessed.

At 50 I have discovered that my relationship with Sandy keeps getting better and better. We sometimes assume that love and romance are at their peak in our youth, but the journey Sandy and I have shared together, those moments of vulnerability where we have caught each other, of self-doubt where we have encouraged each other, of pain where we have held each other, of joy where we have laughed and danced with each other, have left us with a love that grows deeper and richer by the day.

At 50 I have enjoyed an extraordinary 20 years with my children. I have never felt as deeply, worried as excessively, laughed as raucously, or wept as passionately as I have with and over my children.

At 50 I find myself liberated from the constricting dogmas of my youth, no longer shadowboxing with them, holding my beliefs much more loosely and with room for doubt, yet somehow in the midst of all of that feeling deeply connected to my God and very much defined by my faith.

At 50 my body shakes and my physical strength is fading but life courses through my veins and blesses me with faith, hope, love.

At 50 life is good.

It’s all uphill from here. Old people are the happiest of all

Everybody wants to be happy and we often assume that the younger you are the happier you are. But the truth seems to be that happiness increases with age.

happiness-curveIn the last couple of decades happiness has been studied by researchers across the world.The results are striking. Four variables seem to impact happiness: gender (women report greater life satisfaction than men); personality (extroverts are happiest and neurotics least happy); circumstances; and, surprisingly, age.

We enter adulthood relatively happy, but our happiness levels progressively decline until they hit their lowest point around 50. After that there is a steep rise right into old age. The pattern, diagrammed for the US,  has been tested across more than 70 countries and a host of variable. It holds true regardless of wealth, employment status, children, or country.

Of course, we are talking about a fairly narrow range. The difference between reported sense of psychological well being in our diagram shows 50-53 year olds average 6.3 out of 10, while 80 year olds are just under 7 out of 10. So the variation is less than 10%.

There are multiple interpretations as to why the pattern exists, but given I turn 50 this year, it’s a most encouraging result. Looks like the only way is up!

Haters, Adam Goodes & the Elusiveness of Empathy

Life has a way of surprising us. In the last 12 months, as the symptoms of my Parkinsons have become more pronounced, I have experienced a deep generosity of spirit from family, friends and strangers. For many the default response to my disability has been empathy and a desire to help. One might hope for this from those who are close, but I had never expected it from complete strangers.

Yet the treatment of AFL footballer Adam Goodes shows that we can be pretty cruel. I have no idea what motivates people to boo him. Not the friendly boos of playful sporting rivalry but something visceral and cancerous. Is it racism, a willingness to celebrate an indigenous man who ‘knows his place’ but turns on the proud warrior? Is it tall poppy syndrome, cutting down those who soar to heights we mere mortals can only aspire? Is it the tribal nature of football, where friendly rivalry easily mutates into bitterness? I have no idea. Perhaps different things motivate different people.

What we do know is the damage the damage it is inflicting on Adam Goodes. Yet the booing persists. We even see some criticising Goodes, claiming he brought it all upon himself.

How is it that the stranger traveling by train to the football can show me such kindness, yet be so callous when he arrives at the stadium? Is it because in me he sees someone like himself, but whether its race, tall poppy syndrome, or tribalism, cannot think of Adam Goodes in the same way?

Empathy, that precious but elusive quality that unites strangers, turns enemies into friends, and calls forth our humanity. Perhaps the redeeming feature of this ugly episode with Adam Goodes will be shame driven by the cognition that no matter how famous or talented we may be, no matter the colour of our skin or the flavours of our food, no matter the pride or self-hatred we possess, we all need to be loved and to feel loved. Maybe then we will be neighbours not strangers.

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