You could be forgiven for thinking Austrians had been living the Corona Crisis in a fairy-tale Dornröschenschlaff, waiting to be kissed awake when it was all over. In a late-May study of 809 registered voters conducted for the daily Der Standard, a full 83% of Austrians reported themselves as “very or mainly happy.” What had particularly surprised researcher David Pfarrhofer was the consistency throughout the Corona crisis: Before and during the lockdown the happiness values hardly changed – merely a small positive bump in the last few days as the lockdown really loosened.
But can we measure happiness? It’s probably the most important quality of daily life for most of us. And yet in an age obsessed with metrics – when we measure everything that moves and much that doesn’t – a happiness index is tantalizingly difficult. Nonetheless, a World Happiness Report does exist, published annually by United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network, with the basic numbers from Gallup’s data dip in 156 countries. First published in 2012, as an alternative measure of development success, the study measures factors like social support, healthy life expectancy as well as GDP per head, freedom to make life choices and perception of corruption.
At first glance the rankings are not surprising: The top five are four Nordics plus the Netherlands and the top 20 (Austria ranks 10) the so-called first world: Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, with the USA squeaking in at No. 19. The ten unhappiest are all African or Middle Eastern countries, plus Haiti. Simply put: Comfortable finances and absence of daily violence are largely what matters.
But things are never that simple
Gallup publishes its own Global Emotions report, also worldwide, interviewing over 150,000 people in 140 countries, based on qualitative questions like “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” or “How about enjoyment?” The number crunching here produces a dramatically different ranking: Paraguay (Nr 73 on the UN Happiness Report) and Panama top the list, followed by seven other Central and South American nations and Indonesia. Money isn’t everything, but it helps.
Back in Austria, the general feeling of wellbeing had, in spite of everything, a lot to do with the ongoing high level of approval for the government’s overall handling of the crisis. A closer look at the Standard study confirms this: 93% of those who most approve are the happiest. Differences between men and women are negligible, but the youngest (16-29 yrs) are significantly less happy than those over 50. Curiously, artists and creatives (who are among the hardest hit during the lockdown) are happier than most of us. A look at the 17% most miserable completes the picture: They are over-proportionately indifferent or died-in-the-wool supporters of the far-right FPÖ, perhaps still grumbling over their party’s train wreck and fall from grace of their one-time idol H-C Strache. Disappointingly for those of us who love our favorite prejudices, the numbers show the grumpy Viennese to be four points happier than the national average.