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What makes a nation happy?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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'A Switzerland fan smiles while attending their men's Group B football match against South Korea in the London 2012 Olympic Games at the City of Coventry stadium, July 29, 2012 (Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman)

The latest edition of the World Happiness Report was released recently. This study was produced by Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, and John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia. While the title may seem lighthearted, the Report is a thoroughly researched and serious academic endeavor that has been ongoing since its first edition in 2012. It measures each country’s happiness through a system of surveys intended to grant insight into the life evaluations of people around the world. It’s authors note that “Happiness is increasingly considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy” and argue that it provides an improved, more holistic gage for measuring the effectiveness of national policies and decisions. As such, their hope is that it will largely come to replace the more income-based methods of evaluation that are often used today.

This year’s Report revealed that Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway are the happiest countries with Canada coming in 5th, Israel 11th, and the United States 15th. For comparison sake, out of 158 countries ranked, Iran is 110th, Iraq 112th, Egypt 135th, Afghanistan 153rd, and Syria 156th. It is not surprising that many of the countries that ranked closer to the bottom of the scale are in the midst of turmoil and unrest, both politically and socially. However, the fact that the highest ranked nations were more small to mid-sized, western countries rather than the larger and more economically proficient powers is perhaps unexpected.

The Report’s authors noted that the inclusion of social elements, as opposed to more financially based measures, help to explain the higher scores of the top nations. Sachs noted that the Scandinavian countries, a classification in which three of the top 4 nations fit, have “perhaps the highest social capital in the world.”  In all four countries, social support was deemed as influential as GDP per capita. Furthermore, generosity and the freedom to make life choices also tended to test relatively high compared with many other nations.

In a recent Bloomberg View article titled “Why Northern Europeans Are The Happiest People,” Leionid Bershidsky speculated that part of the reason why Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway scores so highly is related, at least in part, to the way that these nations are set up to be participatory. They function based on more direct democracy and through closer community with one another. As Bershidsky writes, “Participation and deliberative democracy help build mutual trust, an important part of social capital. People are more willing to pay taxes, less prone to corruption, and expansive social safety nets become the norm.”

He concludes that part of the reason why these nations are more successful in creating a more participatory culture is because they are simply smaller. Of the top 10 countries in the Report, Canada is the largest with 35 million people. It is easier to live out the principles of a participatory culture in a smaller setting, in part, because there is a greater awareness of individual responsibility.

The first believers also understood the importance of individual responsibility. In Acts 2:42-47, Luke tells of how those first believers walked through life together, encouraging and supporting one another so that the whole could prosper. However, what separated the Church then, and what should continue to separate the Church today, is not that they supported one another but that they did so out of their love for God. They were united not by their need for one another but rather by their need for Christ and it was through Christ, they became one (John 17:11).

So I ask, what, if anything, is uniting you with the body of Christ today? Do you go to church because it’s Sunday and, well, that’s just what you do on Sundays? Do you go to Bible Study or small group because you enjoy being with the people there? Those are not bad reasons to be part of God’s community but, by themselves, they are incomplete. If your primary motivation for being involved in the Church is about you, then you’ve misunderstood what the Church really is at its core. The Church is a group of people who follow after the one who did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

The World Happiness Report demonstrates that when the individual takes personal responsibility for serving others, everyone is blessed. The first believers showed us what that principle looks like in the context of the early church. In truth, it works much the same today. If each of us will strive to love God by loving others, we too can experience the kind of unity in Christ that should be the defining characteristic of the Church. With whom will you share that love today?