“Welcome to Maine: The Way Life Should Be.” – Well-known local roadside sign

Searching for a way to ease the psychic impact of moving from a beautiful lakeside and beach-filled summer back to “the way life is going to be,” I naturally reached for the World Happiness Report 2015.

This document is the most recent iteration of a series of efforts to get world leaders and policymakers to move beyond pure production and monetary measures of national and regional success.

It began in 2011 with a “Resolution of the UN General Assembly, proposed by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies.”

I don’t know how many road signs this effort has spawned, but it has generated a great deal of research into the nature and measurement of happiness, a series of reports and, as is the case with most newly minted measures, a series of lists.

The list for 2015 (based on data from 2012 to 2014) declares that Switzerland is the happiest nation on the planet. The United States came in 15th, just behind Austria and Mexico and just ahead of Brazil and Luxembourg.

Looking at the scores – er, final measures – is much like perusing the times of the latest 100-meter dash at the world championships. Usain Bolt is certainly the fastest, but the difference between his time and those of the rest of the finishers is minuscule.

Switzerland “won” the 2015 happiness “race” with a final measure of 7.587, edging out Iceland by 0.026 happiness “points.” Indeed, the U.S., at 15th, recorded a “score” of 7.119, about 6.5 percent behind Switzerland. Clearly, there isn’t a great deal of difference among the top finishers in this “race.”

And this is where the measure gets interesting, and very relevant to Maine’s would-be corporate motto. The report’s editors (it is no longer an official publication of the U.N.) – John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs – use both “objective” and “subjective” measures to compile their happiness results.

The objective measures are gross domestic product per person, health-adjusted life expectancy and reported donations to charity. The subjective measures are answers to several questions in the Gallup World Poll.

The first of these questions is “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?” This is intended to measure social support.

The second is “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” This is intended to measure one’s sense of individual autonomy.

The third is a two-pronged question: “Is corruption widespread throughout the government or in business?”

The fourth question is the compilation of several questions about how individuals felt on the previous day. Responses noting joy and laughter generate a score of 1, meaning a “positive affect.” Responses of “sad,” “depressed” or “angry” generate a score of 0, meaning a “negative affect.”

In short, happiness – or the more academic term, “subjective well-being” – is made up of facts and feelings.

And this is why the happiness “race” is so close. Some countries have higher levels of the objective facts on which to be happy, while others have more of the feelings of subjective well-being that the authors define as part of happiness.

In the U.S., the recovery of GDP growth – as tepid as it is – outpaces much of the rest of the world. But at the same time, our sense of distrust – as reported in responses to the question about the extent of corruption in government and business – has increased, thus pushing us further back into the pack of front-runners.

And these trends lead me back to our road sign motto. What, exactly, does each of us mean when we think about “the way life should be”? And, more importantly, is there any meaningful statewide “we” in this sense of well-being?

If, in my mind, “the way life should be” means “the way life used to be,” while in your mind it means “the way I hope to make it,” we are probably going to have a conflict, and our statewide happiness is going to drop no matter what happens with taxes and jobs.

One need look no further than the increasing contentiousness of proposed changes in the city of Portland – from redevelopment to parking – to see a reflection of the problems with bringing considerations of happiness into public policy decisions. Maine could do worse than dig a bit deeper into the meaning of our roadside sign and turn it into a useful tool for guiding public policy.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]