Does a Country’s Wealth Determine its Citizens’ Happiness?

Mercedes Salazar Period 3

A society is influenced by many things—values, other people, the media, and often times the government. But does the government help achieve its citizens’ happiness? And does a country’s wealth determine its citizens’ happiness?

According to Aristotle’s teachings, happiness means “to live life in accordance to reason.” Nowhere in his definition does it say anything about money or wealth as being essential and equivalent to happiness. In order to live a life of reason, a person must be able to make good decisions and know how to tell right from wrong. Humans’ ability to reason and make decisions is what sets them apart from animals. Virtue goes along with reasoning and Aristotle says that a virtue is a “habit or trained faculty.”

Aristotle says that material riches like cars and other material objects only distract from true happiness. True riches are riches that are helpful in reaching true happiness and that help one to live a life according to reason. These are things like food, shelter, and clothing.

And yet, so much of society today is focused on material things: fancy cars, big houses, the newest iPhone, and nicest clothes. We see this promoted all over the media and in magazines, especially with celebrities like Kim Kardashian and shows like the Bachelor. The emphasis is put on material things and wealth. Many people think that money is the key to happiness because then one can buy things that he or she enjoys; happiness seems to equate itself with pleasure and thus unhappiness with pain or misery. This is the Utilitarianism way of thinking, which is quite contrary and conflicting *with Aristotle’s view. Countries’ governments should help people to find happiness that not only means pleasure, but living virtuously.

In order to learn to live with virtues, the people of a country should be able to make their own decisions and not be oppressed or corrupted. After all, free will is one of the most important things that a government should allow for its citizens. Without free will, people would not be able to choose between right and wrong and thus practice living virtuously.   By comparing two countries of differing wealth, The Netherlands and Nicaragua, it will be clear if wealth is an important part to its citizens’ happiness and overall well-being.

The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but does that mean that the people living there are truly happy? The Netherlands government is a constitutional monarchy. The monarch is the head of the state and the prime minister is the head of the government. They have a bicameral legislature, much like the United States. Members of the First Chamber, which is 75 seats, are elected by the 12 provincial councils. Members of the 150-seat Second Chamber are elected popularly too. Everyone serves 4 year terms. The current king is King Willem-Alexander van Oranje-Nassau. The king signs the laws that are approved by Parliament and nominates all of the politicians who form the government. Much like in England, the king has no real power, but acts as a representative head of state and is mostly a symbol. Mark Rutte is the current prime minister.

A couple of years ago, the Netherlands was ranked as “the world’s 4th happiest nation.” According to Ellen de Bruin, a journalist and psychologist, part of the reason why the Dutch people are so happy is because they are free to choose their religion, sexuality, and say what they want to. Most Dutch women also work part time, which is sure to relieve much of their stress. Another perhaps more contributing reason as to why Dutch kids are so happy is because they have less homework than other children around the world, particularly the United States. Children under the age of 10 normally don’t have homework in order to encourage their curiosity and their want to learn. They don’t have to take the SAT or ACT because there is no competitive college process. The Dutch government gives money to families every month to help them pay for raising their children—this surely helps the parents feel more at ease about supporting their family.

But does this happiness come from money and free will, or from “living a life in accordance to reason”? Well, from the research it seems that Dutch people are happy because of their ability to choose to say or do what they want.  Aristotle would not say that being able to practice your own religion or having the freedom of speech is being happy. Having less homework and being relatively stress-free is definitely not in accordance with Aristotle’s definition of happiness. In order to truly be happy, you must live with virtues in order to achieve the final end and reach happiness.

The Netherlands’ suicide rate has risen in the last six years. It has risen 25 percent since 2007. In 2013 they had 1,854 suicides, the highest number of suicides ever recorded in one year there. These facts show that even though the Netherlands is the “world’s 4th happiest nation,” there is something clearly wrong in their lives. If they were truly very happy then they wouldn’t be committing suicide and the numbers wouldn’t be going up. It’s interesting how even though it seems like the people there are better off because it is such a wealthy country, it is quite the opposite.

On the other hand, Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the poorest country in Central America. The president of Nicaragua is head of the state and head of the government. Even though they technically have a democracy, the president Daniel Ortega was re-elected in 2011 and constitutional changes from 2014 allow him to stay in power indefinitely. The Nicaraguan government is very corrupt and has been for years. Protection of private property is not executed effectively which means that there is not “true” freedom.

The Travel Channel ranked Nicaragua as one of the “Top 10 World’s Happiest Countries,” as well as other countries in Latin America, including Guatemala, Venezuela, and Panama. It can be inferred that their happiness is a different kind of happiness than that of those in the Netherlands. About 46% of people in Nicaragua are under the poverty line, so their happiness cannot come from wealth or material possessions. Unlike the Netherlands, Nicaragua is very agricultural and relies on crops like cotton, sugar, and coffee.

When I went to Nicaragua this summer I saw a lot of poverty in the community I went to. Yet despite this, the children were very generous, kind, and (our definition of) happy. Their financial situation didn’t seem to affect their outlook on life. It was pleasantly surprising to see them with this positive attitude.

Even though this is a different kind of happiness than of the Dutch, Nicaraguans get their happiness from just being happy with their lives. Pleasure and contentment have a lot to do with that. If this is the case, then it would not be in line with Aristotle’s view of happiness. Even though they are content and happy, that does not necessarily mean they are living in accordance to reason.

Aristotle would likely say that neither of the people in these countries is living a life of true happiness. The Netherlands has a shockingly increasing suicide rate while Nicaragua is full of corruption and there is not as much free will, especially in the area of owning private property. It seems that a country’s wealth does not affect whether or not the citizens are truly happy. That has more to do with their ability to live with virtue and reason. Just because a country or a person is wealthier does not mean that he or she is happier with his or her life. People are likely to find true happiness when they are able to make rational decisions and reason.

“Nicaragua.” Index of Economic Freedom.  Accessed April 26, 2015.

“Political System of Netherlands.” Amsterdam. Accessed April 26, 2015.

Alexandra Gowling. “The Netherlands is the world’s fourth happiest nation.” I Am Expat. Last modified September 11, 2013.

“The 8 Secrets of Dutch Kids, the Happiest Kids in the World.” Finding Last modified September 19, 2013.

“Netherlands.” Infoplease. Accessed May 2, 2015.

“Statistics Netherlands: suicides rise substantially again .” Last modified December 9, 2014.

“Nicaragua.” Every Culture. Accessed April 25, 2015.

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch. 2015.


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