There are two good reasons to ask people how they feel about their lives. The first: Well-being is arguably a better measure of national success than Gross Domestic Product and life expectancy–traditionally the granddaddies of country-level metrics. After all, a country can’t truly claim to be successful if its people don’t feel successful, whatever economists might say.
The second reason is that well-being is a good proxy for other things. Though there’s no proven correlation between subjective happiness and GDP, there is a link with general resiliency. People who are happier tend also to be healthier and better able to bounce back from setbacks like losing their jobs.
The latest snapshot of global contentment (and discontentment) comes from the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index (Gallup is a polling group, Healthways a consultancy). It’s based on a survey of 133,000 adults from 135 countries. The results, though published only recently, are for 2013.
Gallup asked respondents 10 questions across five categories: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. Under purpose, for example, one question was “You like what you do every day?” Under financial, the survey asked “in the last seven days, you have worried about money?” From the results, the survey defines whether people are “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering” for each element.
Globally, only 17% of people are thriving in three or more of the categories, with the Americas having the highest percentages of people thriving in three categories (33%) and Sub-Saharan Africa the lowest (9%).
The Americas also has the highest number of thrivers for purpose (37%), social (43%), community (37%), and physical (36%) categories. The region falls down, though, for “financial” with 29% of thrivers; Europe has the most (37%).
As for individual countries, Panama has by far the most thrivers in at least three categories (61%) followed by Costa Rica (44%), Denmark (40%), Austria (39%), and Brazil (39%). And it also comes top in four of the five categories. (In fact, Panama is so far ahead, we might question its results, though it’s doing well economically). Sweden scores best in financial, with 72% thriving. European countries occupy the top seven places in that category.
The countries at the bottom of the rankings aren’t a surprise. Syria reports 1% of the people thriving in at least three categories (it would be interesting to know precisely who these people are). Afghanistan, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad take up the bottom five places.
The Middle East and North Africa scores lowest of all regions for purpose (13%), a result the report blames on widespread unemployment. “[Its score] reflects this widespread lack of work, which can lead to social unrest and political instability,” it says.