Money can't buy happiness -- but living in another nation may

``Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'' In the years since Thomas Jefferson defined the three ``unalienable rights'' of man, Western nations have proved to be strong proponents of the first and capable defenders of the second.

But what about the third? What is happiness? Where does one find it? How can a nation best foster its pursuit?

Those are the underlying questions addressed by Ronald Inglehart, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, and Jacques-Ren'e Rabier, a special adviser to the Commission of the European Communities and director of the Eurobarometre survey, in a book titled ``Studies in Subjective Well-Being,'' to be published this fall by the Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor.

For answers, these two researchers turn to cross-national surveys which ask people how satisfied and how happy they are. Their recent article in Public Opinion magazine, collating the results of several such surveys in a number of countries, arrives at some startling conclusions:

Some nations are simply happier than others. ``Happiness and overall life satisfaction,'' the authors write, ``vary surprisingly little between groups within a country, but they vary a great deal between different countries.''

While there is a definite correlation between satisfaction and happiness, there is no clear relation between satisfaction and income. The Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and Dutch have high incomes. So do the West Germans and the French. But the former group is far more satisfied than the latter. The people of Northern Ireland, despite the ``troubles,'' and despite an income less than half that of the Japanese, say they are well satisfied and very happy, while the Japanese are neither.

Nationality is the best predictor of happiness and satisfaction. If you want to know about people's sense of well-being, don't inquire into income, education, or religion, or anything else. Just ask about nationality. If they're Irish, they'll probably be happy; if they are Italian, they may not be.

The rankings are consistent over time. Surveys in 1974, 1976, 1981, and 1983 produced pretty much the same rankings among nations -- even though, during that period, economic prosperity shifted in different ways among different nations.

Why should this be so? The authors quite rightly find the question perplexing. They raise a number of reservations about the data -- although they dismiss one of the largest, which is the suspicion that the word ``satisfied'' does not have the same overtones in English as, for example, ``zufrieden'' in German or ``satisfait'' in French. A tempting argument, they admit -- until they consider the Swiss, who seem universally satisfied no matter which of their three main languages (French, German, or Italian) they use to respond to the survey questions.

More plausible -- though more difficult to prove -- is the authors' suggestion that perhaps ``cultures differ in the extent to which it is permissible to express unhappiness and dissatisfaction with one's life.'' In general, they add, it appears normal to report at least a modest degree of satisfaction -- but that this tendency seems stronger in northern than in southern Europe.

The danger with such a study, of course, is that it can lead to the worst sorts of stereotypes, self-fulfilling prophecies, and geopolitical fatalism. Its value, however, is in alerting us to some otherwise ill-defined trends. As an example, the authors cite a striking but little-noticed decline in satisfaction reported by the Belgians over the last decade.

``Unless our indicators are totally erroneous,'' the authors say, ``in its impact on human happiness [among the Belgians] this phenomenon dwarfed most events that make world headlines.''

Point well taken. Western societies spend a lot of time pursuing ``headline'' trends -- and not enough in searching out the underlying wellsprings of satisfaction and happiness. It is a subject, the authors conclude, that is ``poorly understood, and well worth studying.'' A Monday column Chart:Who's who on the satisfaction scale Country `Satisfaction'

(on a scale of

0 to 10) Denmark [WS 8.03 Sweden [WS 8.02 Norway [WS 7.90 Netherlands [WS 7.77 N. Ireland [WS 7.77 Ireland [WS 7.76 Finland [WS 7.73 USA [WS 7.57 Britain [WS 7.52 Belgium [WS 7.33 W. Germany [WS 7.23 France [WS 6.63 Spain [WS 6.60 Italy [WS 6.58 Japan [WS 6.39 GNP `Happiness' rank per capita (1979)

$8,470 [WS 5

10,071 [WS 8

8,762 [WS 9

7,057 [WS 4

3,560 [WS 2

3,533 [WS 1

5,814 [WS 11

10,765 [WS 6

4,972 [WS 3

7,978 [WS 7

9,507 [WS 13

8,619 [WS 10

2,830 [WS 12

4,191 [WS 15

7,244 [WS 14 Source: Public Opinion, April-May 1985. The ``satisfaction'' rating is a composite figure drawn from Political Action Surveys (1974-76), World Values Survey (1981), and Eurobarometer 19 (1983). The ``happiness'' ranking is based on a World Values Survey. 30{et

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