Italians look cheerful - so why do they claim to be unhappy?

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Italy came 50th in the latest World Happiness survey. Photo: Chiara Vitellozzi Fotografie
12:17 CET+01:00
Italy might be famous for 'la dolce vita', but life is not so sunny for the people who live here.

There’s no escaping the convivial atmosphere in most Italian coffee bars each morning, where, if you’re a regular, the barista knows your order or if you’re short on cash you can pay the next day.

In what many Italians see as the last bastion of human interaction that cannot be overshadowed by social media, people greet each other with a cheery buongiorno and enjoy a quick catch-up over their coffee and cornetto.

Such an atmosphere leaves the impression that Italians must be the happiest people in the world.

But despite their welcoming and sunny disposition, Italians are, in fact, among the least happy in Europe, according to the World Happiness Report Update 2016, which was released in Rome on Wednesday.

Italy came 50th – five places lower than in the 2013 ranking, with Italians trailing behind their counterparts in Germany, the UK and France when it comes to happiness levels.

Beyond Europe, even people in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s worst human rights offenders, are happier than Italians. The country ranked 34th.  

The survey, which ranked 156 countries, was based on a combination of self-declared happiness factors, including health, family, social support, job security, freedom to make life choices and freedom from political oppression and corruption.

So it would seem that living in a beautiful country with an abundance of sunshine, good food and rich history does nothing to take the edge off the problems Italians encounter in their daily lives.

“Italian people are cheerful on the surface,” Marco Lauriola, a psychology professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, told The Local.

“But the reality is different; happiness is not just composed of social interactions, and what you see on the streets is very superficial – it’s just a cultural way of being with people who you don’t know very well.”

The sluggish Italian economy, which is only just starting to emerge from its longest recession since the Second World War, has also hit Italians’ wellbeing hard over the last decade or so.

Cases of depression rose between 2005 and 2013, according to figures from Istat, the national statistics agency, with the illness affecting 2.6 million people as of July 2014.

Meanwhile, the job situation is still precarious, despite the unemployment rate falling to 11.9 percent in 2015 from 12.7 in 2014 – the first annual drop since 2007.

Some people have been jobless for years, with little to occupy their days and little hope for the future.

“So long as people cannot see a hopeful future, it hinders their level of happiness,” Lauriola said.

And despite their demeanour in public, Italians are, on average, quite “individualistic”, he added.

“What is important to some Italians' wellbeing is their health and that of their family, and the financial resources ‘for me and my family’ – not others. Although there are many altruistic people, there is a measure of distrust in the public.”

Maurizio, a bar owner in central Rome, agrees that the country’s economic woes – especially since it joined the euro - are at the root of Italians' disgruntlement.

But he also touched upon the distrust people have – not only for their politicians, but also for each other.

In fact, almost 80 percent of Italians said their fellow countrymen and women were not to be trusted in a survey carried out by Istat in 2013. The survey also showed the level of distrust had crept up during the recession years.

“We do have happy natures and a good character, and are cheerful in the street...but we have our issues,” said Maurizio.

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“One of them is our frustration with people who constantly break the rules – people have no respect - but this is also because they see the people who make those rules doing exactly the same thing.”

Celine, a 26-year-old restaurant worker, also lamented the high taxes Italians pay, for little in return.

"There are no jobs, the services are poor, the infrastructure is bad. I’m lucky to be working but many feel hopeless – we earn, we pay tax, but we don’t get anything back."

Denmark regained the top spot in the happiness ranking after slipping to number three in the previous edition.

But what makes people in the chilly Nordic nation so upbeat compared to the Italians?

"One thing that definitely plays a role is the nation’s welfare system, which helps to eliminate, or at least minimize, many of the concerns people have elsewhere," Justin Cremer, the editor of The Local Denmark, said.

"There is also a strong argument to be made that Danes simply have lower expectations, which can sound like an insult but really isn’t. Danes seem to appreciate what they have instead of always striving for more and can find a lot of happiness in something as simple as enjoying the return of the sun after a long stretch of grey days." 

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