What really makes people happy?  It’s a simple question, but the answer seems to be more complex and varied than what you might think.

I read with interest The World Happiness Report that came out the other day.  It ranks the “happiest” countries in the world, and also details where the U.S. ranks and why happiness is declining here.

Norway ranked first, followed by Iceland, Switzerland and Finland.  The highest ranking country in North America was not U.S., land of opportunity, but Canada, coming in 6th.  The U.S. slid down to 14th, and in fact, according to this report, happiness has been declining in the U.S. for the last decade, despite per capita income increasing during that same time.  The report summed it up this way:

America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.

Turns out that happiness as determined by this report, has more to do with social support, than making more money.  Key attributes include: “generosity, a healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices and freedom from corruption.”  And this seems to be why Scandinavian countries do well.  There is less income disparity and more support systems for all residents, including universal health care, free education, and community support.

I can’t say I’m surprised by this, and it leads me to relate this to living in a rural mountain town in comparison to a big city.  Because I think there is a metaphor of why I personally pursued this life and why I feel so much more content living a simpler life in a log cabin than at other times in my life.

Big cities seem to foster a “Keeping up with the Jones” mentality.  McMansions abound, and everyone seems to be caught up with making more money, and buying more and more stuff.  Certainly, when you are living in poverty, and don’t even have basic shelter or enough food to eat, more money will bring happiness.

But there comes a point, that more money just makes you think you need to buy more stuff, better stuff, a bigger house, fancier cars to prove your success.  And the weird thing is, that this doesn’t seem to solve all your problems, or make you feel better.  Studies show that wealthy people in the U.S. have just as much mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism as others.

I know personally I have never been so miserable as when I lived in Washington, DC working at a high-powered consulting firm, working 60 hours a week or more, making more money than I ever made, but feeling utterly miserable.  I didn’t feel as if I had any meaning in my life, much less feel as I cared about anyone else, or anyone cared about me.

But living here in Nederland, I feel a part of a community, a sense of belonging of living with like-minded people, who have made a specific, personal choice to opt out of the rat race, and city life in order to live a simpler life.

I know my neighbors, I talk with them regularly.  People help each other out, whether it’s through community work groups like Saws and Slaws doing fire mitigation, participating in a community Thanksgiving dinner or just helping look after my neighbor’s pets while they are out of town.

I want people in the community to live a better life, even if that means extending myself out of my comfort zone.  A perfect example is paying a small property tax increase in order to provide RTD Ecopasses to all who live in Nederland, whether they own a home or not.

That might mean the difference for someone being able to take a job in Boulder, or lessening our collective carbon footprint towards reducing climate change.

And I know all these small actions results in feeling part of something bigger with people who are all working towards a greater common good alongside me, and not just focusing on furthering my own interests or income.

When I graduated from college, William Sloan Coffin gave our Baccalaureate address.  I don’t remember much of what he said that day, except for one particular sentence.  He said, “just remember even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”  I choose not to be a rat, and as it turns out, that might actually make for a happier life.