Live to Work or Work to Live? Yes.

All life we work but work is bore,
If life’s for livin’ what’s livin’ for?

The Kinks, “Oklahoma, USA”


What makes us happy?

Those on the Left might say it’s a oneness with our fellow citizens, clean air and water, equal opportunity for all, top schools, and holistic healthcare. Science would be very central. And Steve Jobs.

The Right might say something like prosperity, opportunity to make one’s mark, freedom from interference, and an environment where the smart and strong excel proportionally to their effort. God is squarely at the heart of the list. Big piles of cash sit on the right hand side of the Father.

There’s really nothing to argue with in either list. They’re not mutually exclusive, either– despite what our Pols might tell us in today’s zero-sum winner-take-all climate.

Whatever end of the spectrum you find yourself, it’s also important to acknowledge the role society played in shaping it. Parents, teachers, preachers, and media all offer directions to the ‘righteous path’ that leads to happiness.

Left to our own devices, what’s the route that leads to the kind of lasting happiness most everyone would love to have? Hard to say, but I thought I’d begin with who’s happiest now, on the assumption that they’re the furthest down the path.

Forbes did a ranking of the happiest people by country, utilizing data from the Legatum Prosperity Index. Consistent with its financial orientation, in addition to some of the high falutin ideals above, Forbes delved into some baser concepts like “entrepreneurship and opportunity.”

The most widely cited study on global happiness comes from the OECD. Its “Better Life Index” uses much of the same general filters as Legatum, but throws in some lefties like “civic engagement”‘ and “work life balance.”

Here are the two lists:


  1. Norway
  2. Denmark
  3. Australia
  4. New Zealand
  5. Sweden
  6. Canada
  7. Finland
  8. Switzerland
  9. Netherlands
  10. United States



  1. Australia
  2. Norway
  3. United States
  4. Sweden
  5. Denmark
  6. Canada
  7. Switzerland
  8. Netherlands
  9. New Zealand
  10. Luxembourg
  11. Finland


Huh. It’s virtually the same list in slightly different order. I would not have bet that in light of the seemingly different orientations of the researchers. Maybe we’re not as different as our instilled biases would lead us to believe.

A few things jump out quickly.

Cold People are Happy People

Other than Australia and New Zealand, cold, wet, and snow obviously make folks happy. There’s one myth debunked. It seems to me that these countries do particularly exemplary jobs of embracing what they have, rather than pining for what they don’t. They celebrate weeks of complete darkness with huge winter festivals, skiing, pond hockey, and cold drinks on even colder nights. There’s something to be learned there.

A Little White Lie?

This is quite a white, white list. The absence of Latin America, Asia, and Africa is startling. However, if you look at the relative prosperity and stability in North America and Europe, it’s not too hard to conclude that their opposite– war, famine, instability, strife…– don’t line up well with happiness. The problems of the countries on this list are decidedly lower case relative to much of the rest of the world. I suppose a fair question would be are the world’s bigger issues displaced from North America and Europe to much of the rest of the world in some global gentrification?

Smile if You’re Socialist

If socialized medicine is wrong, I don’t want to be right according to this data. With one exception, and for how long we don’t know, the State is largely in control of the healthcare system. Again, this calls into question the rhetoric about death lists, yearlong waits, and the other horrors of socialized medicine. Seems pretty clear that it doesn’t keep beneficiaries of it from being happy and may even contribute to them being so. At a minimum, it correlates.

Kiss the Taxman

These countries are among the most taxed in the world. Where American pundits often assert straight-line inverted relationships between taxes and happiness (high taxes equate to low happiness, lower taxes to high happiness), the data seems to indicate otherwise. These countries are among the most orderly and organized in the world. Clean and safe, they seemingly benefit from the high quality systems and infrastructure high tax revenue provides. This, in turn, makes them happy.

Take this Job and Love It

The highest correlation to happiness in both surveys is Jobs. More than personal freedom, safety, education, work-life balance, income, or being “healthiest”, jobs is the leading indicator of happiness. People who have jobs are happiest. But I think it’s important to define “jobs.” What we hear most about is how in American anyone can be the next Zuckerberg, Brin or Bezos. In fact, I don’t think everyone wants an entrepreneurial job or would feel fulfilled in one. Entrepreneurs are some of the most unhappy people I know– until you can’t knock the smile off of their faces. But those are the minority. Equally, I don’t think SMB are the only kinds of business out there. I think LB (as in “large businesses”) are perfect for many. I know many people who worked in mills and in plants, who literally punched clocks and carried lunch-pails and loved it. Know what else? When the whistle blew they went out with their friends and then home to their families. They coached little league. They took every day of vacation they were entitled to. Happy? You bet. They worked hard, but when they were done, they were done. Really done as opposed to this home-run swinging generation tethered to their phones and seemingly not as happy as those that came before them who had much less of everything.


Except time.

What does this mean for business? Perks and benefits make people happy. People like to work in an environment where everyone is on the same team if not equal. A stress and drama free environment makes people happy—and presumably makes them better workers to boot. Finally, most people want to work hard, but not everyone wants to go for the brass ring. Some are very satisfied with the gold watch given to the glue of society that show up every day ready to work…and then go home when they’re done. They don’t want to run the joint, just to help it work. You need them as much as they need you.

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