Who wouldn’t want to be happy? Experts and politicians promise us more gross national happiness. Cynics might say, it’s because we see less gross national product these days, but probably there is some truth to the claim that we should rather care about a better life, and even – behold the gigantic anthromorphism – a happy planet.
No small wonder, serious academics have joined the quest for measuring subjective well-being, life satisfaction or happiness (for data and literature see, for instance, Ruut Veenhoven‘s website). With data come explanations. People have related well-being to economics, to health, family states and social ties and culture (eg. website of the World Value Surveys).
The findings of these measures are remarkably consistent. In Europe, Scandinavia often ranks top, Eastern Europe bottom, with the rest somehow getting by. Hungary is always among the bottom countries. And it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Hungarians are well-known for their melancholy and pessimism. Suicides seem a national pastime. Suicide rates reached so high a level that the Communist government stopped its publication in the 1970s (NY Times). Pretty much any important intellectual or politician of some historical importance chose hara-kiri in one way or the other. To top it all, Rezso Seress, the composer of the famous song Gloomy Sunday ended his life in 1968.
So, should Hungarians collectively move to Sweden, a second Finland if you will? Maybe not. The OECD recently published statistics on the consumption of antidepressiva across countries.
The results are astonishing. Not only is there a considerable increase over the last decade, but there are also large differences over countries. Hungarians take relatively few antidepressiva, about 26 daily dosages per 1000 inhabitants. In some Scandinavian countries people take four times as much. And Scandinavians report to be happier.
As the figure shows there is a clear relationship: Countries with higher intake of antidepressants have higher levels of reported happiness. It holds for other indicators of subjective well-being. Could it be explained by something else? If you control for the level of prosperity, as the theory above would suggest, the effect of antidepressants on happiness still holds, and quite strongly so (regression results available on request). There is a timing issue: what causes what? However, the relationship also holds for the values around 2000, and for looking at changes in happiness over time. So maybe there is a causal pattern, but what does this mean?
One thesis could be that antidepressants have a direct impact on aggregate happiness. Though there might be some truth in this, the magnitudes are different. Usually far less than five percent of the population takes antidepressants, but reported happiness differs by much more across countries. Even if effects spill over to other people, the total would arguably not be big enough to explain this variation in happiness. Instead, one could think of two interpretations. In the first, people in certain countries truly invest more in happiness (drugs, therapies, sports, recreational activities etc.) and are indeed happier. In the second, people try to convince themselves that they are happier, because they invest a lot of resources in their happiness. This by the way, should create some headaches for happiness researchers, as it reveals in part the social habit of stating that you are happy while, in fact, you may be not.
So what’s in this for Hungarians? Well if the former interpretation is true, Hungarians should take mental problems more serious as an issue of public policy. If the latter interpretation is true than Hungarians should be proud to be honest in reporting their state of the world, and indulge in the culture of melancholy as a country that is happily sad.