Smiley the Water Tower, in Grand Forks, North Dakota Image credit: gfpeck via Flickr/CC license

This is What Makes a Country “Happy”

Apparently, universal health care, good quality public education, (and high taxes) have something to do with it. All Nordic countries are among the happiest countries on the planet, as are Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the US ranks 14th and has been on the decline. (More on that later.) 

This data comes from the fifth annual World Happiness Report, released on March 20 on the occasion of International Day of Happiness. The report ranks over 150 countries in terms of happiness and well-being, in a bid to move away from the “tyranny of the GDP” as the ultimate indicator of a country’s success. To gain a deeper understanding of how countries and their residents are faring, the authors have developed a methodology which includes not only economic indicators, but also social and health factors.

No big surprises here (Source: NY Times)

Using these non-traditional metrics yields somewhat unsurprising results, with mostly Scandinavian countries in the top five, and mostly African countries in the bottom five, but they reveal specific insights into what makes a country and its people happy.

The World Happiness Report uses six independent predictors of happiness to determine the rankings, including GDP per capita, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), healthy life expectancy at birth, trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), freedom to make life choices and generosity (as measured by recent donations). It also takes into account respondent’s life evaluation score – a ranking from 1 (worst) to 10 (best) as to how the person perceives their own life.

Not only are the top 10 countries’ scores strong on all counts, average life evaluations are more than twice as high as in the bottom 10. There is a lot of consistency, year over year, in how people rate their lives in the top ranking countries, in contrast to bottom-ranking ones, and this evaluation can put upwards or downwards pressure on the indicator-based ranking.

Which is why the index doesn’t yield many surprises: the happiest countries in the world tend to have smaller, healthier populations who pay high taxes. The world’s least happy countries tend to be war-torn, unstable or poor.

Looking at the top 10 countries, the report notes that the differences between these countries are almost insignificant, and that they tend to swap places within this range. In the bottom 10, however, there is more variance, and some countries where average life evaluations are lower than their indicator score would suggest (Tanzania, Burundi or Rwanda, for example, are not war-torn) are further down the index than expected.

In the U.S., the happiness trend has been on the decline over the past decade. While economic indicators – GDP per capita and life expectancy – have been steadily on the rise in the United States, happiness levels have not. The report notes that “income per person has increased roughly three times since 1960, but measured happiness has not risen. The situation has gotten worse in recent years: per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling.” 

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, perhaps the Trump presidency will provide an opportunity to actually *increase* happiness in the U.S.

The World Happiness Report says that

“The strength of the underlying social fabric, as represented by levels of trust and institutional quality, affects a society’s resilience in response to economic and social crises. [In Greece], reports provided evidence of an interaction between social capital and economic or other crises, with the crisis providing a test of the quality of the underlying social fabric. If the fabric is sufficiently strong, then the crisis may even lead to higher subjective well-being, in part by giving people a chance to do good works together and to realize and appreciate the strength of their mutual social support, and in part because the crisis will be better handled and the underlying social capital improved in use.” (emphasis added)

Unlike Greece, the United States has strong, respected institutions that while under threat, are also cherished by Americans. Since Trump took office in January, we have witnessed a massive upsurge of activism and engagement in the United States – starting with the historic Women’s March on January 21, where millions and millions of people took to the streets to affirm their commitment to democracy and human rights. Americans have been shocked into action, participating in their politicians’ town hall meetings, calling Congress incessantly, marching and rallying on a regular basis and making significant donations to organizations that appear under threat by the current administration.

This is Americans’ chance to strengthen their social fabric and improve their social capital. This is a challenging – and often frightening – time, with real risks and threats for minorities and marginalized communities. But it is also an opportunity, as we are witnessing, for Americans to come together to defend their most treasured values. In line with the authors’ argument, while we might expect increased perceptions of corruption in the U.S., the Trump era provides an opportunity for Americans to strengthen their society by reclaiming their fundamental values – and their happiness.