Religion journalists: Why are the UN's ten 'happiest' nations all secular-oriented?

So, how are you today? Feel OK about your life? Are you happy?

Chances are you're more likely to answer those questions affirmatively -- while smiling broadly, no doubt -- if you reside in Denmark rather than, let's say, Burundi. Or if you live in Switzerland and not -- get ready for another shocker -- Syria or Afghanistan.

At least, so says the pretentiously named World Happiness Report produced for the United Nations by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international panel of economists, psychologists, public health experts and others.

Most of its conclusions seem beyond obvious. (You don't see many Danes or Swiss risking their lives, and those of their children, to illegally enter Burundi, Syria or Afghanistan, do you?) However, the report does contain a few surprises.

For example, Israelis -- who face knife attacks and other small-scale terrorist actions on a daily basis and who live with the Islamic State, Hizbollah and Hamas on their borders -- say they are happier as a nation than do Germans, Britons, the French and Italians. And even Americans. Israel was listed by the report as the 11th happiest nation on Earth, while the U.S. placed 13th.

Apparently humans prefer facing possible death on the streets than the endless drip-drip torture of presidential primary debates. I can relate.

But I jest. So let me get serious and suggest that the report has much to offer journalists. It's haunted by religion ghosts -- which is to say, there's a host of extractable story ideas in it for journalists inclined to explore the nature of human happiness today from a psychological, spiritual and religious perspective.

Religion writers; I'm looking at you.

And, yeah, I know bewildered and beleaguered editors will probably prefer another thumb-sucker on why Donald is pulling in so many self-described evangelical Christian voters or whether Bernie's a "real" Jew. Or perhaps an eye-ball grabbing headline about the latest sex-and-gender brouhaha or how American Muslims feel unwarrantedly discriminated against.

But mankind cannot live on repetitive story lines alone. Nor, in the long run, can journalism. Hence, this post about the World Happiness Report. (Click here for the complete rankings.)

Here's a link to the full report released last week in conjunction with World Happiness Day (Don't know about you, but I'd prefer an entire week or two of happiness; just one day seems a bit too manic-depressive for my taste.)

And here's how the report explains itself:

ROME, March 16 -- The World Happiness Report 2016 Update, which ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, was released today in Rome in advance of UN World Happiness Day, March 20th. The widespread interest in the World Happiness Reports, of which this is the fourth, reflects growing global interest in using happiness and subjective well-being as primary indicators of the quality of human development. Because of this growing interest, many governments, communities and organizations are using happiness data, and the results of subjective well-being research, to enable policies that support better lives.
The 2016 Update was launched at the Bank of Italy during a three-day series of conferences on happiness and subjective well-being. A companion volume, the Word Happiness Report 2016 Special Rome Edition, was also released at the same time.
“Measuring self-reported happiness and achieving well-being should be on every nation’s agenda as they begin to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Indeed the Goals themselves embody the very idea that human well-being should be nurtured through a holistic approach that combines economic, social and environmental objectives. Rather than taking a narrow approach focused solely on economic growth, we should promote societies that are prosperous, just, and environmentally sustainable.”

While the report focuses in the main on life's material components -- economics, politics and in particular social inequality -- for measuring happiness it also pays ample attention to how spirituality and religion contribute to a sense of happiness.

Specifically, it references in detail Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si',  in which he warned about the negative consequences of putting "technological approaches and profits" ahead of "all other human concerns." It also devoted an entire chapter (.pdf here) to religious and spiritual techniques for achieving states of happiness, no matter how fleeting.

 (By the way, is happiness, however defined, religious belief's true end game? Many a saint and sage has questioned that premise.)

Still, the report concludes -- given what it calls the contemporary decline of religion's direct influence over humanity -- that secular pathways and institutions concerned with human self-satisfaction are the wave of the future and must be strengthened. This, despite the report's acknowledged deep human need for spiritual connection.

(To be fair, I'm guessing that saying much more about the power of religious faith is a potential third-rail at the delicately balanced UN. As it is, the report does mention such sensitive areas as economic equality, environmental sustainability and social safety nets -- all of which make governments uneasy because so few perform well in these areas.)

The report received relatively little media coverage last week. The little it did get was mostly limited to the report's happiest nations list. Click here to read how The New York Times handled it.

There was also some coverage of the bragging-rights kind. For example, here's a story from New Zealand taking pride in how well that nation fared, and another from Israel boasting how that nation outranked the U.S.

Note that the report's top ten happiest nations-- more accurately, those nations in which citizens self-identify as being overall happier -- are all Western- and secular-oriented. They are, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.

Why is that, fellow religion scribes? As I said, there's much in this report worth journalistic attention.

By the way, Burundi was at the bottom of the list. It was preceded by Syria, Togo, Afghanistan, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, Liberia, Tanzania and Madagascar -- all poor nations wracked by war, disease and political instability or demagoguery.

One last thing.

Remember all those upbeat stories over the years about Bhutan being the happiest nation on Earth? The hook has been the Bhutanese government's Gross National Happiness index, as opposed to gauges that solely equate economic advancements, such as family income or gross nation product figures, with "progress."

But according to the World Happiness Report, Bhutan is way down the list at number 84. Now I don't mean to quibble, but, for whatever it's worth, I was quite happy during a Himalayan hiking vacation I took three years ago in Bhutan.

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