Democracies – particularly those with a strong tradition of social democracy, like Finland, Denmark and Iceland, in first to third place respectively – are at the top, while the country at the bottom is Afghanistan, ruled by the brutal and tyrannical Taliban. Countries where the leaders are elected but who win power through ‘populist’ means – typically a mix of blaming foreigners, demonising political opponents, empty nationalist rhetoric, and undermining faith in democracy – also appear to be rather unhappy places, with Hungary in 51st place, Turkiye in 106th and India in 126th.
There are, of course, multiple factors at play but, still, the trend is stark. And it should be obvious that people allowed to choose their political leaders are more likely to be happy than those whose ruler is forced upon them and cannot be changed by peaceful means.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously suggested we had reached the “end of history”, by which he meant that liberalism had finally triumphed over totalitarianism. The argument about how to organise human societies, it seemed, was over.
However, what he – and everyone else – failed to predict was the rise of inequality and financial instability as globalisation took off and how this prompted a populist backlash from both the political left and right. Once a conservative, Fukuyama has latterly come to view social democracy as a necessary antidote to illiberal populism.
Speaking to Spanish newspaper El Pais last year, he said many social democratic societies in the 1960s became “mired in low growth [and] high inflation” and it was important to cut taxes and reduce regulation to address this, but that “in the current period, we need more social democracy”.
The idea, popularised in the 1980s by Thatcherites, of a small state that interferes in people’s lives as little as possible was of its time. Forty years on, all political parties must realise the need for governments to actively demonstrate the benefits of democracy in practical ways that boost the happiness of their people. Otherwise, the threat from dangerous anti-democratic forces, like the Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol, is likely to grow.