The Happy Swiss

In a recent email, a friend shared the news that Switzerland has just come in fourth in a UN rating of the world’s happiest countries—something I didn’t know. So I decided to find out what this ranking means.

If you follow my blog, you know how much I enjoy living in Switzerland and how attached I am to Bern. I also tend to get annoyed by clichés about the Swiss. Nevertheless, I have to be honest and say that when I think of a country whose residents radiate a sense of joy at being alive, Italy comes to mind a lot faster than Switzerland does. Yet Italy isn’t even among the top twenty happiest countries in this latest ranking. And the Number One Happy Nation for the fifth year in a row is . . . Finland. Finland? Well, maybe it’s not fair to use the word dour to describe the Finns, but an open-hearted people full of warmth and laughter they are not.

So what is it these statisticians use to determine degrees of happiness? Not surprisingly, wealth and health are important. Another factor is how well a country takes care of its people, measured by how much green space there is in cities, for example, and whether healthcare is both good and affordable. Using poll results, the ranking also takes into account the extent to which people in each country offer assistance to strangers, whether through donations, volunteering, or simple acts of kindness. (At the moment, I personally know two Swiss families who are taking Ukrainian refugees into their homes, which I consider a monumental act of kindness.  Mind you, the mother in one of these families is Irish, not Swiss—Ireland ranks thirteenth in happiness this year.)

Some research on this rating of countries showed me that what is being labeled “happiness” is actually a general feeling of satisfaction with life. So I decided to have a closer look at what factors make the Swiss feel satisfied.

Swiss banknotes

Wealth: Switzerland is both the richest and the most expensive country in the world, which makes attempts to get a grip on Swiss purchasing power difficult.  Still, it’s possible to say that if you earn a Swiss salary, you can live very well compared to most of the world—not to mention that you enjoy nice vacations abroad, since almost everything, from hotel rooms and restaurant meals to clothes and souvenirs, is much cheaper in the rest of the world than it is in Switzerland.

Health: Swiss healthcare is very good, and basic-level health insurance, which is both private and obligatory, ensures that everyone can afford it. But health insurance is a major budget item: even if you choose a large deductible, it will cost at least $5,000 a year. Still, the Swiss seem to be getting their money’s worth out of their doctors: they have the highest life expectancy and the lowest obesity in Europe.

Work: It is striking that the Swiss unemployment rate hovers around three percent, year after year. This is only a little less than the current rate in the US (3.8%), but in the UK it’s 4.9%, in France 8.6%, and in Spain 12.7%.

Swiss National Council

Government: The Swiss Parliament (which is divided into a larger and a smaller chamber, much like the House of Representatives and the Senate) seats members of eleven political parties, the strongest of which provide one or two Federal Councilors to serve on a seven-member executive body. The job of Swiss president is filled by a different Councilor every year and is largely ceremonial. The result is a highly representative and very stable system, which is shaken out of its equanimity four times a year when the electorate votes to introduce sometimes dubious constitutional amendments or block federal laws that have just been passed. Sadly, only around 40% of the Swiss who are eligible to vote bother to do it.

From kindergarten through graduate school, Switzerland also has a superb education system, but that’s a subject for another post. Still, I think I’ve listed enough factors to show that the Swiss have a lot of reasons to be content with their lot. Here, however, are a few things they ought to be very unhappy about (and many of them are):

  • That some banks—primarily Credit Suisse and UBS but smaller banks, too, along with lawyers—encourage the world’s dictators, organized criminals, corrupt politicians, and tax evaders to hide money with them;
  • That there are weapons dealers in Switzerland who use Swiss neutrality as an excuse to sell arms to some of the world’s worst rulers;
  • That Switzerland is one of the most important hubs in the world for trade in raw materials, including oil, gas, wheat, zinc, copper, and aluminum, and, so far, no one seems to have done anything about the fact that 80% of Russia’s raw materials are traded by Swiss companies. In addition, many of Switzerland’s commodity firms do not concern themselves enough with the welfare of the workers around the world who produce all these raw materials, often under terrible conditions. 
Cartoon by Riemann

In November 2020, a Responsible Business Initiative was only very narrowly defeated; it would have required federal law to hold Swiss firms accountable for the human rights abuses from which they profit. This issue is not going to go away, and it’s one indication among many that, over the next decade, Switzerland may grow to be an even happier country, at least for the many Swiss who care about human rights.

6 thoughts on “The Happy Swiss

  1. Not a lot that I didn’t know about the Swiss, but I appreciate your comments about the reasons for unhappiness. The dirty money problem exists in most wealthy countries—like Britain and the US—Switzerland is the major European launderer, etc. It is good to hear that the Swiss are trying to improve their behavior…as should we all. Be well!

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  2. It’s nice of you to put Swiss bad behavior in perspective, Julia. Certainly they aren’t the only ones, but it’s still something to be ashamed of. They wouldn’t be tempted into this kind of thing if the Swiss franc weren’t such a stable currency! Hope spring is coming up there in the North where you are. Daffodils here.

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  3. Switzerland is also very beautiful. I also have an appreciation for countries that value communities getting along more than our “my individual liberty is the most important thing” United States attitude. A little of both is nice, though!–as it is those who stray from the norm that often change the world.

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  4. Yes, that’s such a good point. Switzerland is more oriented toward the rights of the group than the US is. A tiny example is noise in restaurants. In Switzerland it is rude to be loud in a restaurant, and most people wouldn’t dream of bringing small children into a restaurant unless it has a playroom they can disappear to when they finish their food (which quite a few country restaurants have.) Swiss parents (and even more French parents!) don’t let their children eat out until they know how to sit quietly. I haven’t lived in the US in many years, but I think many Americans would find this unfair (although there are lots of very informal, family-oriented restaurants in the US, which is something that doesn’t exist in Bern, except for McDonald’s!) As you say, the ideal society needs both a certain amount of cooperation and a certain among of rebellion against norms. The perfect balance is hard to achieve.

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