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Are people in countries that have more introverts happier than those in countries dominated by extroverts? This is a tricky question.
For the sixth year in a row, Finland held the #1 spot in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. When I read this, my next thought was: Hmm, Finland also perennially ranks high in countries with a hefty percentage of introverts (#7 in one study, #4 in another). Might there be a connection?
Months ago in Introvert UpThink I tackled the question of whether or not, as claimed by European travel guru Rick Steves, extroverts have more fun than introverts. I arrived at the conclusion that the answer to that question at least partly depends on one’s definition of fun. With the UN World Happiness Report, we likewise have to delve into its definition of happiness to understand how to interpret its results.
First, though, let me detour into the contrast between how ancient Greeks like Aristotle conceived of happiness and the concept of happiness as the experience of buoyant emotions such as joy, pride or delight. For Aristotle, happiness was not a momentary emotional uptick, or a succession of positive emotions, but rather something a person achieves by living a thoughtful, purposeful, virtuous life. Many commentators shy away from using the word “happiness” for Aristotle’s concept of the good life and instead translate the key Greek word eudaimonia as “human flourishing,” “fulfillment” or “wellbeing.” Emphasizing the long view, Aristotle wrote: “For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”
However, I suspect that most Americans today would agree with the definition given by the website VeryWellMind.com: “Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment.” In this view, someone’s happiness might very well change from hour to hour and day to day. You could theoretically average those fluctuating emotions and arrive at someone’s overall level of happiness. And in this view, the right to pursue happiness that is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence would mean the right to achieve that feeling of elation and enjoyment. The happiest country, then, should be the country where the average person has more of that feeling more often than any other country.
Yet the way the UN’s World Happiness Report defines happiness leans much closer to Aristotle’s concept of human flourishing than to happiness as a temporary emotional state. For each country, the UN report took into account these six factors: social support; income; health; freedom; generosity; and absence of corruption. The report also used data from worldwide Gallup polls that asked people to rate their overall life satisfaction, from 0 as the worst possible life to 10 as the best possible life. Thus, the top-ranked country in this happiness report might not rank highest in its citizens experiencing an inner glow of exaltation and an outer glow of bliss.
Indeed, the New York Times article announcing this year’s World Happiness Report results flung sand at Finland’s top-dog standing in the study with the observation that Finns aren’t known for big smiles. It also quoted Finns as describing their national mood as “quite gloomy” or “a little moody.” If the Times author had read the UN report carefully, she would have realized that this is not a contradiction. In the study in question, Finns rated highest on the factors listed in the previous paragraph, not on how much they beam contentment to others.
A commentator in Slate who was born in Finland and says he prefers living in the United States pointed out that the Happiness Report’s ratings partially depend on expectations. Throughout Scandinavia, Jukka Savolainen stated, the culture “encourages contentment with life’s bare necessities. If you already have those, you have nothing to complain about. Ergo, you are happy.” People who expect the sort of life conditions that their country typically provides thus might rate their life satisfaction higher than those who are conditioned to compare themselves to the wealthiest, most privileged and most accomplished individuals they’ve ever heard of.
When we look beyond Finland and North America, we find that “happiness” does not have the same significance worldwide. In some cultures, whether or not someone has been blessed with good fortune has an important bearing on whether or not that person is considered “happy.” More deeply, some cultures don’t even hold up happiness as a goal in life, believing that those who pursue life satisfaction are tempting fate to send reversals their way. What a slippery concept this is!
And now I can return to the issue I started out with. Compared to other countries, Finland has a high percentage of introverts. And Finland consistently ranks very high in the UN’s World Happiness Report’s measures of wellbeing. Is there a connection there? I have no expertise in statistics, so I have no idea how to go about connecting separate studies in a scientifically valid way. Even so, I have some thoughts.
First, the word “happiness” in English is terribly ambiguous. In future, if you see media reports about happiness surveys, find out whether they refer to overall life satisfaction or the prevalence of upbeat emotions (or some composite of both). Second, extroverts are more likely than introverts to rate highly when it comes to euphoria, because they welcome a high level of stimulation. But introverts may have the edge when it comes to contentment, because we more often seek peace and serenity.
And third, because cultures vary in the extent to which they celebrate extroversion or introversion, the match or mismatch the culture you live in and your personality may have an impact on your own pursuit of happiness (however you define it). An introverted Finn who values solitude and would rather not talk to strangers would most likely feel more at home (and thus happier) in Finland than in a setting where everyone talks up a storm and everyone and his brother puts their noses into everyone else’s business. I hope one day I can visit Finland and experience its culture myself!