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  • Writer's pictureMark McMinn

The Purple Bar beyond Dystopia

It's official. Finland is the place to be. For four years in a row it has topped the list as the happiest country in the world, according to the World Happiness Report. It surprises me a bit because it's cold there. The average annual temperature in Helsinki is almost 13° (Fahrenheit) colder than where I live in northwest Oregon, and Helsinki is considered the warm spot of Finland. I guess cold and happy can go together. Skiers, snow-adventurers, and mountain climbers have known this for a long time.


Being a social scientist, I wasn't fully satisfied with the CNN report of the world happiness data, so decided to go find the actual report and look at the methodology. At first glance, this may appear very complex, as if many factors go into determining these happiness rankings. In fact, it is a very simple process. The overall happiness ranking is from the Gallup World Poll team and is based on a scale known as the Cantril Ladder Method. To understand this, picture a ladder from 0 to 10, with 10 being your best possible life and 0 being your worst possible life.



Now place yourself somewhere on that ladder and report what rung you are standing on. The average Finnish person stands almost on the eighth rung--about one rung higher than the average person living in the United States--while the average Afghani stands between the second and third rung. The huge disparity between the top and bottom of the list is tragic, of course, but the method of determining happiness is quite simple.


The length of each bar in the following graph (and thus, the overall happiness rating) is determined solely by ratings on the Cantril Ladder. So why all the colors? In particular, the purple bar had me curious.

The colors, which makes this all look quite complex, are "Life Factor Variables," determined by experts in ethnography, statistics, and economics. Basically, these are our best efforts to explain why some countries consist of happier people than others.

Dark blue: How prosperous in your country? (gross domestic product)

Teal: How may friends do you have? (social support)

Pea green: How long and well will you live? (healthy life expectancy)

Yellow: How free are you? (freedom to make life choices)

Maroon: How generous are you? (generosity)

Red: How free from corruption is your country? (perceptions of corruption)

Purple: Dystopia

Let's compare where I live (the United States, #19 on the chart) with the top of the ladder (Finland). It appears we have similar economic prosperity, with a slight edge to the US. Social support is also similar, though Finland has a minor advantage here. Life expectancy and perceptions of freedom are again similar, but with a slight advantage to Finland. The US is more generous and Finnish people perceive less corruption. But what's with this purple bar? Finland's is quite a lot larger than whatever purple the US can muster. And what is Dystopia anyway?


Move to Finland if you must, but never to Dystopia. It is a hypothetical country that has the lowest average score on each of the six Life Factor Variables. So this fictional benchmark nation has the worst economy in the world, the poorest social support, lowest life expectancy, least generosity and personal freedom, and highest corruption in the world. But you could probably buy a big house for not much money there, at least if you bribed the right official.


Still, I haven't explained the purple bar fully. Two numbers are added here:

  1. Even if a country had the worst of everything in the world, they would still have a little bit of happiness. This is the Dystopia measure, which amounts to 2.43 ladder rungs this year. It's the same for every country because this is the baseline, factored in before any of the Life Factor Variables can be considered.

  2. Then there is prediction error, which is all the ways a country's ratings surprise the researchers -- either in a positive direction or a negative one. Take a look at Costa Rica in the graph above and notice the large amount of purple, well beyond the baseline of 2.43 ladder rungs given to all countries. Lisa and I get take-out food often at a local Costa Rican restaurant, which makes me wonder if people in Costa Rica are happy because the food is so delicious. In the case of Finland, almost a full rung on the ladder can't be explained by all the variables the smart people use in their multiple regression equations.

Hmm... This has me thinking today. How much of happiness is not about the things we expect. After money and freedom and generosity and social support have their say, there is still something else that contributes to happiness, and quite a lot in some countries. It's not hard to find theories about why Finland is so happy, ranging from the alcohol they drink to the paternity leave they offer, but part of me just wants to leave this to mystery. And then, somehow, I want to ponder the mystery.


What might it be like to settle into a place of happiness that is bigger than all the predictors and statistical categories that can be offered? Many days I fail to find this place, but some days I do. I find it in the fertile soil of a small farm, the smile of a grown daughter, the feeling of sun breaking through spring clouds, the surprising words of a Mary Oliver poem, a Toll House cookie, the joy of playing my guitar after a 40 year hiatus. These are little surprises of grace, piling on the purple of life.


A lake in northern Finland. The photo is available for purchase here.



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