EU: Whose Happiness?

In European countries, Austrians and Danes rank among the highest for their standard of living, But does that make them happier?

News | Johanna Neyt | July / August 2011

Fear of downward mobility, no sense of security, self-imposed pressure to perform: the Austrians are unhappier than most Europeans. Money makes you happy, they report, education not necessarily.

"The Austrians are just as pessimistic as the Germans," Ulrich Reinhardt, the Hamburger trend watcher told the Austrian daily der Standard, reporting on his latest study released in June. Between the Bodensee and the Neusiedlersee, people are just plain down in the mouth.

Initiated by American British Tobacco, the 2010 Happiness Survey in 13 European countries, shows that the Danish people rank the top, with 96% reporting being happy with their lives, followed by the Greeks, financial crisis or not, who keep up the spirit with 80%. The Austrians, like the Germans, come in far down the list with only 63% of the people saying they are happy.

So where does the dissatisfaction come from?

To a large extent, it is anchored in the mentality, Reinhardt says. The original word for happiness, ‘gelucke’ appeared as early as the 12th century, is closely related to the term ‘gelingen,’ to accomplish. While happiness elsewhere is rather understood as a general and long-lasting condition, for German-speaking people it is closely connected to achievement, and thus is more of a short temporary high that sets in when something is successfully completed: passing an exam, a completed project, or even a winning football match. The real opportunities with the creation and performance do not always keep up pressure but create a lot of frustration for Austrians.

The second cause of dissatisfaction is found in the fear of downward mobility. While Germans and Austrians have a high standard of living, they have the feeling it can only go downwards. That might be the reason that ‘poor’ countries rank higher on the charts, says Reinhardt: They expect things to get better. And if not, well, what have they got to lose?

In the European comparison, family factors play a crucial role. Denmark, for example, has Europe’s best conditions for families: kindergardens, childcare, free medical care, etc. The strong social structures are reflected in the figures about Austria. In smaller communities of less than 5,000 inhabitants, two thirds of the people call themselves happy, while half of the Viennese are apparently still in search of happiness. One reason appears to be the presence of larger families in the countryside, less anonymity and a closer relationship with neighbors and friends. However, at the same time more people in the countryside commit suicide.

In one very clear result, the survey showed that money does indeed bring happiness: the higher the household income, the greater the feeling of happiness. Only 45% of those who earn under €900 monthly seem to be happy, while those in the category that earn over €3,600 monthly, 75% declare that they are happy. It becomes even more complicated when people have a higher education. Despite the fact that they make a good living, they tend to worry about "God and the world" – the great philosophical questions – to the extent that they seem to forget how to enjoy life. Statistically, academics are unhappier than people with a standard education.

It is also a factor of age. Young people up to 24 and people older than 65 seem to be happy. But the generation in the middle, who are building a career and caring for both the old and the young while they support the social system, are less happy. For them, life seems to be mostly just a lot of responsibility and hard work.


A Personal Account

Belgian-born Renild Van Heukelom knows both countries well; having lived in Denmark for six years, and equally as long in Austria, she has her doubts about the survey.

"Danish people seem definitely to be happy in some ways – like being happy with fewer things," she said, "but they also want to tell the world that their country is the best, so it’s hardly objective. While for the Austrians, complaining is part of the culture. So, comparing happiness on a European scale may be hopeless."

Surely, standards differ from country to country, and even the questions of what people see as the parts of life most important to be happy about.

For a start, in Denmark, she says, childcare facilities are everywhere. So women (and men) enter parenthood with a great deal of support. Second, there is a very strong ethic of fairness, that everyone is on the same level. "There is an old ‘yente’ law behind this," Van Heukelom says, "and a culture that says, ‘You shouldn’t act superior.’ You could meet the king in the local fitness studio!"

As an example, she tells the story of friends who were still driving with a Belgian number plate – when two neighbors reported it to the local authorities. "One doesn’t do that," she said. "They expect you to support the social system."

While she described Austria as very "socialist," Denmark seemed "almost communist." While there is a very strong work ethic, since you are so dependent on the state, you don’t have the freedom to out-perform others. Clearly not the case here.

While Denmark is sometimes on the top of the rankings of where expats want to live, the ones Van Heukelom knew described it as "a cold country".

"Everyone was so distant," she observed. "You don’t have a warm feeling between people. They don’t touch. The son of friends came back after being away for a year, and the parents just nodded."

But when friends meet by chance in a public place, a Dane immediately introduces everyone to everyone else, and doesn’t – like an Austrian – leave companions ignored on the other side of the table, lie unused props on a set. Which is at least something.

The Danes also have a different definition of ‘freedom,’ she said. They have the word ‘Huge’. "For the Danes, it means being able to go to a beach and run around naked. The less clothes the better! That’s their idea of freedom," Van Heukelom said. "And then they sit down and start drinking..."  Something Austrians, of course, would understand perfectly.

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