‘The Netherlands is one of the happiest countries in Europe’

What does it mean to be happy? How do you obtain happiness? Professor Dimitris Ballas of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences specialises in the economic geography of happiness – and he has some of the answers to these questions.
 By Anne Floor Lanting

Are you happy?

 ‘Yes, I’d say I’m quite happy. I have a great work environment which enables me to fulfil my potential and make a meaningful contribution. I teach in a lively, internationalised environment. In terms of the geography of happiness, I am in the right place. The Netherlands is at the top of the list of the happiest countries in Europe.

Groningen enhances the potential to socialise and interact with friends. The city has a vibrant atmosphere, to which the diverse international population contributes – but it’s also close to nature. Within half an hour of cycling you are in the beautiful countryside. All in all, considering my personal circumstances and how they interact with the environment, I am very happy.’

What is happiness anyway?

‘At the very basic level it’s feeling good, having the feeling that you enjoy life daily. At a more profound level, it is about fulfilling your potential, being respected, being able to support others and contribute to the general well-being of the people around you. Feeling that you have a meaningful life.

On the basis of my own work I would say that interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, feeling valuable and self-fulfilment are the most important determinants of happiness. Sure, income and other resources are also important, but mostly because they help you in your personal development and the development of relationships.’

How are economics and happiness connected?

‘People typically assume that an economist will look at self-interest, how everybody looks after themselves. I am not convinced that is the best way of describing economies. Everything we do is aimed at making ourselves feel better – therefore, we need to measure this and see to what extent policies contribute to happiness, individual and overall.

Increasingly, we argue that happiness is something that can be measured and mapped. Economists have a long and successful history using methods such as econometrics to measure the effect that certain variables, such as the amount of money or friends, have upon happiness.

Being in the spatial sciences and economic geography department, you can also add the geography to this. For instance, it is interesting to look at how the employment rate, equality and proximity to nature of a person’s environment influence their happiness.

If you have an overview of this, you can then look at policies. Let’s say a government introduces legislation that reduces inequality and you know that less inequality increases happiness. You can then, for instance, show how much everyone’s happiness has increased by the redistribution of income.’

 In your data the Netherlands tops the list of the happiest countries in Europe. How so?

 ‘The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark and Iceland, score high when it comes to happiness. This has a lot to do with social cohesion and low inequality. As Richard Wilkinson, a renowned researcher of social inequality, once said: if you want to live the American dream, go to Denmark. The social mobility is very high, you get more chances. Countries that enhance the chances that you fulfil your potential are more likely to make you happy.

When comparing countries, we need to consider linguistic and cultural issues. For instance, in English the word ‘happy’ is used very often. Yet you wouldn’t use the word ‘Gelukkig’ in everyday speech in Dutch. So you could argue that if you use the word ‘happy’ in everyday speech, you are more likely to say you are happy in a survey. In certain cultures, modesty is important, thus people will be less likely to say they are happy. I think a lot of the research on happiness done so far doesn’t take these considerations into account.’

Professor Ballas will give his inaugural lecture ‘The Economic Geography of Happiness’ on Tuesday 13 November at 16:00 in the Academy Building. He’ll also deliver a lecture on ‘The impact of inequality’ on Wednesday 14 November at 20:00 in the Academy Building.


13 November 2018 | 13-11-2018, 14:46