Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Finland may get little sunlight and daylight for months on end, but people living there continue to be happier than most. These countries once again top a poll of the happiest people on Earth, with only Switzerland (second place) breaking up a Nordic clean sweep of the top-five places. Happiness clearly has less to do with the weather, and more to do with factors like social cohesiveness and a strong safety net.
The ranking comes from the World Happiness Report, a United Nations-backed study based on survey data from Gallup. Denmark reclaims top spot from Switzerland (last year’s winner), with Burundi, Syria and Togo deemed least happy among 157 nations. Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia hold places six to nine while Sweden is in 10th place. The U.S. ranks 13th, two places higher than in 2015.
Gallup interviews about 1,000 people in each country each year. It asks people to imagine themselves on a ladder, with the bottom rung ‘0’ (the “worst possible life for you”) and the top rung ’10’ (the best life). “On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?,” it asks. The average score among all respondents was 5.1 out of 10.
The latest survey, which averages data for the years 2013-2015, offers a comparison with 2005-2007 surveys. Countries in Eastern Europe, plus Thailand and China, and seven in Latin America, are significantly more happy now compared to then. But countries like Greece, Saudi Arabia and India are significantly less happy, reflecting fallen economic fortunes.
Researchers say the differences between countries are down to seven factors: real G.D.P. per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. Social support, incomes and healthy life expectancy are the most important.
Happiness economics argues that people’s reported well-being is a more valid measure of national success than GDP, income per person, or even education levels. What matters is whether people are satisfied with their lives, not what services might or might not be on offer. Along the same lines, the report’s authors now argue that inequality of happiness (differences in how happy people feel) are more important than income or wealth inequality.
On that score, Western Europe again comes top, with the least divergence in happiness among whole populations. The Netherlands, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland all come in the top-ten countries with the least “inequality of happiness.” Meanwhile, at the other end, the Middle East and North Africa show most divergence in happiness (South Sudan has the biggest gap of all).
The authors argue that equality of happiness is easier to achieve than equality of income, as improved general happiness may not involve transferring wealth from richer people to poorer people. “One of the side benefits of broadening the focus..to subjective well-being is that there are many more options for improving average happiness, and increasing equality by improving the lot of those at the bottom, without others being worse off,” the report says.