How to cultivate happiness in the Baltic States?

  • 2015-04-04
  • By Gregory Sandstrom, VILNIUS

According to global indexes, people in the Baltic States are ‘unhappy.’ What would it take to increase the levels of happiness and well-being in the Baltic region?

Many people are familiar with the Human Development Index (HDI) from the United Nations Human Development Report, which ranks countries based on annual income, life expectancy and education levels. In 2013, out of the 187 countries measured, the Baltic States all fared quite well: Estonia came in 33rd place, Lithuania was 35th and Latvia 48th. Each of the Baltic States registered a level of “Very High Human Development” on the global scale. That certainly would seem to be something to be relatively happy about.

However, newer indexes have come out in recent years that have challenged the HDI as the main standard of development. Unfortunately, they tell a different story of life in the Baltic States. First published in 2012, the so-called World Happiness Report (WHR) was much less flattering than the HDI: 2013’s results put Lithuania in 71st place, Estonia in 72nd  and Latvia in 88th out of 156 countries. Happiness levels in both Estonia and Latvia slightly improved between 2005-2007 and 2010-2012, while Lithuania’s happiness score slightly declined. The report focuses on different criteria than the HDI, including freedom from corruption, perceived freedom to make life choices, having someone around to count on (social support) and inter-personal generosity. These are admittedly less concrete variables still being codified by researchers.

Worse still, the Baltics fared poorly in the Happy Planet Index (HPI), which focuses on life well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint. In 2012, out of 151 countries, Estonia placed 117th, Latvia 118th and Lithuania 120th. These positions were at least an improvement from 2006, when out of 178 countries Lithuania was 149th, Latvia 160th, and Estonia 173rd. Still, this is not nearly the same level of success as achieved in the HDI. In general, the Baltic region scores a medium-low level of happiness according to these indexes, although its inhabitants are happier than those of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

Why does this matter? After all, the WHR and the HPI are not the only indexes measuring happiness: there are other indexes to consider, based on Quality of Life, Well-Being and even the Good Country Index. So, inhabitants of the Baltics should perhaps take these ‘happiness’ scores with a grain of salt, especially the HPI, which is really more about environmental sustainability than people. What’s more, it certainly raises eyebrows to see some of the discrepancies between the two rankings, with Very High Human Development countries like Australia, New Zealand and the USA scoring lower in the 2009 HPI than Lithuania and Latvia, and lower High Human Development countries Belarus (66) and Russia (68) scoring higher in the WHR. Nevertheless, some people are starting to take happiness more seriously and the UN now marks an International Day of Happiness on March 20th.

From my perspective, as a Canadian expat in Lithuania, the gross national happiness (GNH) of Baltic citizens will not grow if the politics of fear and paranoia is promoted; if Russia is seen as the eternal villain, while Europe is seen unquestioningly as the temporal saviour. Trade and business with Russia must continue and grow at the same time as new economic and political links with the rest of the EU are being developed. If either shrinks disproportionately, then Baltic prosperity and social cohesion will suffer as well. Neither will NATO tanks, planes, soldiers, weapons and sabre-rattling make the Baltic States happier. They might lessen fear or provide a feeling of security, but that alone won’t lead to joy or hope in the face of decline, depression and despair caused by militarisation. Money spent on weapons of war and ‘defence’ could instead be invested in the nation in many other ways.

Besides, positive socialisation must begin at home, and only then can it extend to one’s neighbours. Blaming one’s neighbour displays a sickness in itself; it shows fear instead of courage and gloom instead of hope. Is this the kind of identity and image that the Baltic States want to nurture, let alone project to the world?

Many Canadians define their national identity by what they are not: namely, not citizens of the USA. It is often easier to identify with what one isn’t than with what one is; with what makes one unhappy, instead of happy. But happiness cannot be defined by the negative; it must embrace the positive. Would looking at and meditating lengthily upon J. Maciunas’s piece of art USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records! be likely to lead one to happiness?

One way to change the happiness map in the Baltic States would be to award people for cultivating happiness, instead of dwelling on despair or fear. To promote this, let the Baltic countries put on the world’s first Global Happiness Games. What better place to do it than here, where happiness is said to be lacking? The borderlands of the new Europe could be just as happy as the core.

Perhaps the most iconic and globally well-known event in 20th century Baltic history was the Baltic Way. Did the shared international songs and dainos express mainly happiness or sadness? Could a Baltic Happiness Games find new, 21st century ways of understanding happiness and well-being that cross cultures and languages, and do so with a special European flavour? I’d be glad to explore this theme with others, and consider the various possibilities for what this could entail in a follow-up article for The Baltic Times. Or perhaps an expat in Vilnius can only dream of such things, and should instead just be sharing in the increasingly prevalent fears and suspicions of Russia’s supposedly upcoming plans.

Dr Gregory Sandstrom is a lecturer in communications at the European Humanities University, an exiled Belarusian institution based in Vilnius, Lithuania.