It’s easy to imagine that if you live in one of the world’s happiest countries, your life is probably pretty good. But it turns out that the relationship between social expectations around happiness and our mental health is not so simple.
Share the love: this post was written by University of Melbourne Science Communication student Spencer Clark.
Do we overvalue happiness?
Every March, in the lead-up to the International Day of Happiness, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases its annual World Happiness Report (WHR), a sweeping assessment of the state of happiness across 146 countries around the globe.
The report is famous for its country-by-country ranking of happiness levels, which, without fail, sparks a score of headlines about which country has claimed the title of ‘happiest on Earth’. Making use of the famous World Gallup Poll, the WHR ranks national levels of happiness by asking 1000 participants from each nation about their own individual experiences with happiness. Survey respondents are asked to evaluate their quality of life, and indicate often they experience positive, or negative, emotions.
All of this information is then combined into a national ‘World Happiness Index’, or WHI, allowing for happiness levels to be ranked on a country-by-country basis. Nordic and Western European countries consistently finish in the top 10 in these rankings, with Finland claiming the top spot in the most recent assessment. Meanwhile, those countries impacted by recent conflict or humanitarian crises, tend to finish lowest.
When you see these world happiness results, it’s easy to feel envious of the highest-ranking countries, and to commiserate with the places where happiness appears to be in short supply. But according to recent research, those living in the world’s happiest countries, may not be so happy after all. Paradoxically, people living in the world’s “happiest” countries may actually find it more difficult to find happiness than those living elsewhere.
But how could this be? Seemingly, it all comes down to how ‘pressured’ we feel to be happy.
The danger of overvaluing happiness
Over the past decade or so, psychologists and social scientists have become increasingly attuned to the danger of a society that values happiness too highly. In particular, when human societies view happiness as central to a good, fulfilling life, it appears that individuals are more likely to experience a perceived and harmful, social pressure to be happy.
Today, the digital age means that this perceived societal pressure can be all-consuming. The ubiquity of social media means that we’re surrounded by images of influencers living seemingly perfect lives, while self-help books, motivational speakers, and commercials incessantly promote the importance of happiness to mental well-being.
This landscape can often have us thinking that happiness is an essential part of living, and that to be unhappy, or to experience negative emotions is some sort of failure, our inadequacy of our own. But negative emotions are an inevitable part of life, and there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling sad, anxious, or stressed. Research has even shown that experiencing such emotions can be important to our overall well-being.
The downsides of living in a “happy” country
If a perceived ‘social pressure’ to be happy can be the cause of poor mental wellbeing, then it’s logical to assume that this effect is accentuated in countries with high WHI rankings, where happiness is presumably valued higher.
A recent study published in Scientific Reports sought to explore exactly this question, investigating whether a perceived ‘social pressure’ to be happy was associated with poorer mental wellbeing, and whether this effect is accentuated in countries with a high WHI. The study surveyed over 7,000 people from 40 different countries, inquiring whether individuals felt a “perceived social pressure to be happy” and not depressed and anxious, and also about people’s emotional well-being, clinical experience with mental health disorders, and their levels of life satisfaction.
Overall, the research found that there is a strong correlation between experiencing a ‘social pressure’ to be happy and poor mental wellbeing, but perhaps more notably, this effect is considerably heightened in countries with high WHI rankings, such as Finland and Denmark.
So, do people living in “happy” countries really have it best?
Importantly, this recent research doesn’t show that people living in high WHI countries are ‘unhappy’. The findings of the World Happiness Report strongly show that the citizens of these nations are, on average, happier. But for many people living in ‘happy’ countries, a heightened ‘social pressure’ to be happy appears to be contributing to a higher degree of poor mental health. The research adds to an accumulating collection of evidence that suggests we need to put our perception of happiness into perspective. While there’s value in recognising the importance of positive emotions, we need to stress the importance, and normality, of negative ones too.
Accepting, and experiencing, the entire range of human emotions appears to be the key to true mental wellbeing.