A New Way To Measure Happiness Finds The True Happiest Countries In The World

If people in a country are so happy, why would they want to leave?

We’ve covered a few national happiness rankings here (most recently this big United Nations study that had Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland at its happiest places). A new ranking from Spain has some of the same countries at the top–Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Norway–but it uses very different methods to arrive at its conclusions. Simply: rather than asking people whether they’re happy, it looks at their actions–as revealed by whether leave or stay in countries–instead.


The researchers say this is a more accurate, and objective, way of measuring relative happiness (and as we’ve covered before, people are typically poor judges of their own happiness).

The reasons why people are or aren’t happy, they note, are usually similar to those dictating whether they decide to migrate, such as income, levels of violence, environment, and so on. By looking at data for 112 countries for several criteria, and then looking at migration patterns for pairs of countries, they estimate the influence of these factors on why people stay or go.

“For instance, if people move from a country that has terrorism to another country that doesn’t have terrorism, that tells how important terrorism is for people,” says Juan de Dios Tena, a professor of statistics at Charles III University, in Madrid, and one of the study’s authors. “We don’t ask people if it’s important to move to a country where people live in peace, we see if people move to countries where they live in peace.”

The researchers point out that other happiness surveys find that countries are happy even when large numbers of people want to leave them; and vice versa. In the study, 19 countries have net migration even though they are “self-proclaimed happy in surveys,” and 20 are migration recipients, although they are “self-proclaimed unhappy.”

Other happiness surveys have come up with even stranger results. For example, one study had Haiti ahead of the United States, and Afghanistan beating Denmark, even though the latter countries tend to be more far more common destinations for migration. As the paper says, “it is natural to see countries that are net recipients of migrants as happier countries.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.