What is happiness? It’s a question that philosophers, politicians and economists have struggled to answer for centuries. Well, according to the latest World Happiness Report — there are a few reports like this floating around— the personification of happiness is a country called Finland. It’s certainly not a country called Vietnam.
Compiled by John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey D. Sachs, the report looks at various aspects of happiness, and based on its criteria, Finland is the happiest country in the world. Not bad for a country with the 35th-highest suicide rate on the planet. In second comes Norway followed closely by Denmark and Iceland, with the remaining country in Scandinavia, Sweden, coming in at number eight.
Also in the top 10 is Switzerland (fifth), Netherlands (sixth), Canada (seventh) as well as New Zealand and Australia. Considering how many citizens from the Antipodes live in Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh City, the criteria for these rankings might need a little tweaking. Especially considering that Vietnam ranks a mere 95, immediately below countries like Nigeria, Mongolia, Lebanon and Azerbaijan.
And in case you’re interested, Israel with all its turmoil ranks 11th, the US is 18th and the UK comes in at number 19. France, we are sorry to say, is struggling at number 23.
Western Viewpoints, Eastern Ideas
The problem with such reports are the premises upon which they are based: GDP per capita; healthy life expectancy; social support; freedom to make life choices; charitable generosity; perceptions of corruption; laughter and general daily happiness; worry, sadness and anger.
Many of these premises are Western-influenced and are based on Western concepts of good government, and of what is deemed in the West to be a well-run society.
And while some of these premises — in particular the freedom to make life choices and laughter and general daily happiness — are important wherever you live, others aren’t. Many of these premises just don’t make sense in the context of non-Western countries, and they also don’t take into account something quite key about happiness. Happiness is very individual. As the old phrase goes: “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
For me, one of the best things about living in countries like Vietnam with an outdoor culture is the lifestyle. Simple pleasures like eating street food, drinking bia hoi on foot-high plastic stools, having my morning ca phe da, driving a motorbike at night with the wind in your hair, taking short-break holidays to tropical beaches surrounded by palm trees, having a large set of acquaintances and a buoyant social life. These are all things that endear this country to me. They make me happy.
Yes, they are perhaps aspects of life here that are related to my Western outlook on things, but for me they are simple pleasures in which I place great value.
With their long winters and short summers, this is the kind of lifestyle that countries like Iceland and Finland can only dream of. Yet, for me, such simple pleasures are key to personal happiness.
Does the World Happiness Index take account of this? No, of course not. Does it take into account the Vietnamese who get pleasure out of eating fast food in air-conditioned food courts? No, it doesn’t do that either. Or the happiness of a Vietnamese businessman who’s achieved success and been able to purchase a villa in a gated community? No, definitely not.
Rather than being about happiness itself, Happiness Indexes are instead focused on what it means to live a good, Western-style lifestyle. As such they have little or no relevance to most countries on this planet. And they miss something key: happiness is personal.
Indeed, as I’m sure most people will attest, life in Vietnam has its good moments and its bad. But one thing’s for sure. I personally wouldn’t have spent so much of my life in this country if I wasn’t happy here.
Not bad for a nation ranked the 95th happiest country in the world, especially when the one I come from is ranked 19th.