“Bureaucrats are the guardian angels of happiness”

What makes us happy? Professor Ruut Veenhoven, a pioneer in the field of well-being research, explains to us what happiness consists of.

What is the secret of happiness?

Sibila Lind

Sibila Lind

What makes us happy? Professor Ruut Veenhoven, a pioneer in the field of well-being research, explains to us what happiness consists of.

Professor Ruut Veenhoven was one of the speakers at the “Well-being 2022” conference held last week in Luxembourg and organized by Statec. The Dutch sociologist who, in 1980, launched the World Happiness Database, has been called the “godfather of happiness research.” His extensive research on well-being has helped demonstrate that happiness is a reliable measure for evaluating the progress of societies.

In a call-in video interview with the Luxemburger Wort, Professor Veenhoven stresses the importance of living in a society with many choices, calls for investing in the professionalisation of the “happiness sector” and explains that each of us must learn to be happy in your own way.


Professor Ruut Veenhoven, why study happiness?

Happiness is important, and most people want to be happy just like they want to be healthy. And in the case of health, it has worked quite well, as advances in science have allowed us to live longer and healthier lives than ever before. We could do the same with happiness if we researched what makes us happy.

What is the purpose of the World Database of Happiness?

To acquire knowledge. In medical research, there are so-called Science Hubs, where information is collected. There are different studies to see if, for example, such a type of pill works in such a type of person. And I want something similar for happiness. That’s why I’m trying to bring this scattered knowledge about happiness together in one place. Some people collect stamps, I collect discoveries about happiness.

So what makes us happy?

That’s the big question, and it depends on a series of factors. To compare again with health: your health depends on your genes, your environment and your behavior. The same goes for happiness. It is partly genetic, partly it depends on the environment – and the environment in Luxembourg is much better than in Tanzania, I can tell you – and it also depends on your behavior or your way of life. Even with good genes and in a good country like Luxembourg, you can have an unhappy life. For example, if you drink too much, if you deprive yourself of pleasures or if you do nothing, you will be terribly bored.

Does happiness depend on us as individuals or on us as a community?

Both. For the individual, it depends on how he behaves. But there is no single behavior that would make everyone happy. And the art of happiness is finding a way of life that works for you. In our multiple-choice society, we can choose a trade and we can try a trade. This is one of the reasons why more people end up finding a job that suits them. And that is why we are rather happy, which is not the case in countries where we have little choice.

Does this mean that happiness is a privilege?

It is a privilege to live in a society where there are many choices. In countries where you have little choice, you are unhappy and you can say: “Well, that’s life. No chance”. But in a society where you have a choice, you are partly responsible for your unhappiness, because you may not have the right job. But in most cases, it can be fixed.

It is a privilege to live in a society where there are many choices.

In the end, then, we only need to have a choice?

Yes, but we don’t realize how important choice is to our happiness because we are more faced with the problems of choice. Especially when it comes to having or not having children. Do I want to have children? And when ? Do I have the right partner? It is for this reason that we often put off having children, sometimes so much so that fertility declines. We are therefore very strongly confronted with the problem of freedom of choice, and we hardly see the effects of it. But people who really want kids have them.

Should we invest more in people’s happiness?

Let us again compare with health: why are we healthy? Because there is a business with health experts. So I think we would be happier if there was more professionalization to help people be happier. For example, we would need more well-trained professional life counsellors. Sometimes we are unhappy because we feel alone and we would like to find a partner. So we go to a dating site or talk to a relationship counselor.

But sometimes we are unhappy and we don’t know why. In this case, a life coach can be helpful. Or if you are a person with other difficulties, you go to therapy. Compared to the field of health, the field of happiness is much less professionalized. And I think we should invest more in this area. We should develop a professional scientific committee on happiness, which would help people to be happy.

Can we still be happy after two years of pandemic and a war in Europe?

Yes, and we are. In the latest results of a survey, the average happiness in Luxembourg was 7.6 (0-10). But there is indeed a difference between people’s level of real happiness and what we read in the media about the quality of life. In the media, pessimistic messages predominate. However, I think one of the reasons is that the happier we are, the easier it is to be unhappy. We are more vulnerable to mishaps. And that’s one thing. But another aspect is that happy people also have a broader view of the world. Unhappy people are usually very focused on their own business, while happy people read a newspaper.

And what else do happy people do?

We are of course talking about averages, but happy people are generally sane, active, open to the world and interested in what is happening. They are therefore better informed. They are generally more inclined to improve the world and engage in volunteering. They are better citizens when it comes to exercising their right to vote. And besides, all citizens cheat on taxes, but happy people cheat less [sourit].

Happy people read a newspaper. They are generally sane, active, outgoing and interested in what is going on.

Are governments paying attention to these reports and putting in place measures that promote the happiness of their citizens?

Usually they say yes. And happiness is often mentioned in the first paragraph of the program of political parties. But happiness is a long-term affair. Whereas politics is generally more concerned with the short term. But on the big issues, happiness is gaining in importance. But it is still not the main driver of political decisions.

In my talk at the conference, I showed some of the effects of policy measures. For example, reducing overwork in Japan appears to have had a positive effect on Japanese happiness. But I have also given some examples of unintended negative effects, which relate to the subsidization of childcare services in several countries. In countries where childcare was cheaper, mothers could work. And they also worked and earned more money. But they were more stressed and less happy. Quebec was one of the Canadian provinces where this was the case. From an economic point of view, it was a success, more women were working, but at a considerable cost. The mothers were more unhappy and their children too. When we make political decisions, we have to assess the consequences. And in this case, it was easier to calculate the positive effect of increased female employment than the unexpected negative effect.

So when governments adopt new policies, should these always be presented as a choice for citizens?

My hypothesis is that a policy that offers more choice works better than a standardized policy.

In which areas of the policy should we intervene?

Why are the Danes so satisfied? One of the conclusions is that they have the best bureaucrats. Civil servants are well trained, people are less corrupt… So if you have good bureaucrats, you have a fairly well-organized society, in which you can make your own decisions. People are not aware of it, but bureaucrats are the guardians of happiness.

Another thing: the better the psychic care, the happier people are. And this is where a surprise comes in. The more psychologists and psychiatrists there are per capita, the happier people are. You would say, “Well, then there must be a lot of psychic suffering. Otherwise, these people cannot make a living from it”. But it’s a bit like the number of doctors per capita. As a rule, doctors treat us, and that is why we live longer. In the case of mental health, people are happier when there is better treatment. And this is the case in Denmark.

Even without sun.

Yes, in fact, there is a negative correlation between sunshine and happiness.

What do you want to say ?

Well, in tropical countries, people are generally less happy. I don’t think this is due to the duration of sunshine, but rather to the culture. In rainy countries like Denmark and Luxembourg, we can live quite well, especially because we have nice houses and central heating.

And here is a surprise. The more psychologists and psychiatrists there are per capita, the happier people are.

You have been studying the theme of happiness for many years. Has our perception of happiness changed over time?

Well, basically it’s the same thing. To be happy, you need to have a useful activity and good relations, social contacts. And we need a predictable environment. This is where we come back to bureaucrats, rule of law and peace.

And have you found the secret to happiness? Does it really exist?

No, there is no single secret of happiness. I discovered that in a well-organized society, like Luxembourg, we obviously live better, but in this society, we have to find for ourselves what type of life suits us best. So you have to learn a lot. And suffer a few setbacks, but that’s part of the game.

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“Bureaucrats are the guardian angels of happiness”

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