Janning on Happiness

Rhône Grajcar, Staff Reporter

Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning will be giving a talk at the Walla Walla Public Library on Thursday March 8. The lecture is entitled “Happy as a Dane,” and will examine why Danes have reported one of the highest levels of happiness in the world. Professor Janning has studied gender, the home and family, and has spent time researching in Scandinavia. Wire reporter Rhône Grajcar reached out to Janning for an email interview.

Wire: How did you get interested in researching happiness?

Janning: In graduate school in the late 1990s I studied progressive Swedish family policies, both in terms of how progressive they are (and in how happy they make people) and in terms of the outcomes that are not necessarily desirable (e.g., high employment turnover, inequalities between native-born and immigrant groups). In my courses at Whitman, we talk about how emotions (such as happiness or love) are important to examine sociologically. This is because how people feel, while certainly psychological and biological, is shaped by our social surroundings. Certainly the display of emotions varies across groups (e.g., should people smile or not to show that they’re happy?), but even the ways in which feelings are felt vary (e.g., in places where romantic love is preferred over partnerships created for kinship for economic reasons, love is actually “felt” differently by people)…

In 2012 I spent a semester living and working in Denmark with my family, and teaching a ‘Sociology of the Family’ course to American students studying abroad. In all of these experiences, it became apparent that people idealize Scandinavian ways of life, and it marked the beginning of a boom in publishing books and online pieces about Scandinavian happiness. But it also became apparent to me and my students that we need to delve into the ways in which we define “ideal,” the ways that focusing on happiness may hide problems, and the ways that cross-national comparisons require us to be careful about assuming things like happiness can be transferred across borders or defined uniformly across geographic space and among different groups.

Illustration by Nathaly Pérez

Wire: Is happiness something that can be measured?

Janning: Yes and no. Social scientists study the human experience, sometimes asserting that we can use the word “measures” and that these are objective and able to fit into a scientific method of inquiry. Others assert that all that we study is subjective (and that we shouldn’t call ourselves “scientists”), so the measures are at best proxies for actual experience and are better captured with qualitative data that includes depth of experience and variation within groups about how the world is subjectively perceived and experienced.

It is the case that reports about country-level happiness rely primarily on quantitative measures of happiness that people assume capture at least some reality of the human experience. …  I believe that regardless of a sociologist’s preference for numbers or stories, we can notice patterns that vary across groups. … At the very least, happiness studies and reports allow us to delve into questions of “why are some people happier than others” which get more at societal levels of trust, the provision of needs, and the ways that life satisfaction vary across groups that have unequal access to valuable resources. In other words, without studying patterns of group behaviors and attitudes, we wouldn’t know as much about social inequalities. But without the qualitative stories that underlie the numbers, we wouldn’t know the ways that experience varies even among people that are assumed to be similar. I’m a fan of both numbers and stories that complicate the numbers.

Wire: What does it mean for Danes to report the highest level of happiness in the world?

Janning: Usually this refers to studies that capture both individual levels of reported happiness (e.g., survey questions asking “Are you satisfied with different parts of your life?”) and national markers that align with high levels of life satisfaction (e.g., economic stability and poverty rates, leisure opportunities, aggregated reports of employment satisfaction, environmental sustainability, days of sunshine, etc.). Depending on the measure, different countries rise to the top of the list.

Wire: What kinds of things can we learn from the Danes to make our own lives happier?

Janning: In research about parental happiness in sociology, we know that the happiness gap between parents and non-parents is wider than most other countries (parents are less happy than non-parents everywhere, but the gap is biggest in the U.S.). The single most powerful predictor of this outcome is access to family-friendly workplace policies. … Trust in institutions helps people believe that they are collectively all working toward the improvement of the country. Trust that people will work hard and not take advantage of the system that benefits everyone makes people more satisfied. Young Danes, more than students from many other countries, believe they have complete freedom and can control their futures. Children are highly independent there. In part, this is because, as a student interviewed in Rydahl’s book notes, “What’s good in Denmark is that you aren’t afraid to pursue what you like doing, because if you happen to make a mistake, the State’s there to help you get back onto your feet.” Did I mention that university education (and most health care) is free in Denmark, by the way? So, we see a country with an emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency, paired with a collective safety net that allows for people to be happy pursuing what they want.

Having said this, there are those who fear that the collectivism in place can make people take advantage of resources, or that the schools’ emphasis on making sure every student succeeds can leave the high-achieving students feeling as if they aren’t getting what they need. There are those who really dislike paying large portions of their salaries in taxes.

I also know that it is difficult to apply these things from an affluent and relatively homogeneous country of five million people to the U.S. And, most importantly, I recognize that there are disparities there in terms of which groups are able to access things that make people happy. Xenophobia and nationalism are alive and thriving in Northern Europe and differential access to markers of happiness must be part of the discussion.