The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR.

  1. Purpose
    1. You like what you do every day.
    2. You learn or do something interesting every day.
  2. Social
    1. Someone in your life always encourages you to be healthy.
    2. Your friends and family give you positive energy every day.
  3. Financial
    1. You have enough money to do everything you want to do.
    2. In the last seven days, you have worried about money.
  4. Community
    1. The city or area where you live is a perfect place for you.
    2. In the last 12 months, you have received recognition for helping to improve the city or area where you live.
  5. Physical
    1. In the last seven days, you have felt active and productive every day.
    2. Your physical health is near-perfect.

Here is the full list of the top ten countries in terms of the percentage of residents who self-reported as thriving:

  1. Panama — 53
  2. Costa Rica — 47.6
  3. Puerto Rico — 45.8
  4. Switzerland — 39.4
  5. Belize — 38.9
  6. Chile — 38.7
  7. Denmark — 37
  8. Guatemala — 36.3
  9. (tie) Austria — 35.6
  10. (tie) Mexico — 35.6

Here is how the rest of the world fares; the darker the color, the more elements of well-being that people are thriving in.

NPR / Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index

According to Gallup, Latin Americans have higher levels of well-being than any other regional group, and are the most likely to report daily positive experiences “such as smiling and laughing, feeling enjoyment, and feeling treated with respect each day”. Much of this can be attributed to a strong cultural emphasis on leisure, as well as on recent economic growth, which includes a relative reduction in historically high levels of socioeconomic inequality.

As for why Panama, of all places, managed to beat out every other country:

For the second year, Panamanians have the highest levels of purpose well-being (60.5% thriving) and physical well-being (52.2% thriving). They also tie with other countries for the top spot in social and community well-being. Factors contributing to this peak level of global well-being may include Panama’s Latin American cultural predisposition that is associated with higher levels of positivity than other regions. Its relative political stability, a strong and growing economy in 2014, and investments in national development may also be contributing factors to higher levels of well-being in Panama.

The factors behind Panama’s high performance apply, in varying degrees, to the other top ranking nations: a combination of political stability, economic growth, investment in public goods, and cultural emphasis on leisure and recreation.

Note that most of the top countries were by no means the wealthiest or prosperous overall, an interesting fact that was not lost on the pollsters themselves:

While several of the top 10 financial well-being countries also have the highest gross domestic product per capita, including Luxembourg, Singapore, Norway and Switzerland, other countries with the highest GDP per capita globally have residents who do not feel they have enough money to do what they want to do or have worried about money in the last seven days. For example, the U.S. is 10th globally in GDP per capita, yet it ranks 22nd in financial well-being on the Global Well-Being Index…

…Subjective well-being does not necessarily correlate with GDP, the presence of conflict or other absolute indicators. War-torn populations such as those in Afghanistan may have extremely low well-being, but Gallup and Healthways also found low levels of well-being in countries that are relatively stable, such as Croatia, South Korea and Singapore.

Conversely, the bottom five countries in the index are Tunisia, Togo, Cameroon, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. The latter is in particularly dire straits, as no Afghans were thriving in three or more well-being elements, nor were they thriving in purpose, social, or financial well-being. This squares with Gallup’s finding that:

Globally, higher well-being has been associated with outcomes indicative of stability and resilience — for example, healthcare utilization, intent to migrate, trust in elections and local institutions, daily stress, food/shelter security, volunteerism, and willingness to help others.

In other words, even poor countries can make up for their lack of resources by maintaining strong community ties and networks, which essentially take the place of formal institutions and safety nets. As long as people can depend on one another, or at least have enough personal freedom to pursue their own interests, they can feel secure and thus happy.

Bhutan’s low ranking is glaring given that the country pioneered the concept of “Gross National Happiness“, one of the earliest precursors to measuring well-being rather than just economic growth and development.

Here are the results by each element of well-being:

And here are the countries that performed the worst in these areas:

The hodgepodge of results not only show the complex dynamics behind well-being and life satisfaction — no surprise there — but also reveal how subjective such notions typically are (recall that the results are self-reported). While there are certainly some factors that would universally make most people happy and holistically well-off — freedom from bodily harm, hunger, and disease being chief among them — each individual and society has distinct values that weigh more heavily than others.

Poor residents may enjoy greater solace from having strong communities that support them during tough times, or may benefit from having an pleasant environment that is more conducive to recreation. Maybe their governments are not as efficient at providing public goods, yet are nonetheless hands-off enough to allow people to go about their lives (as is the case for many of the high-ranking Latin American states). Conversely, many richer countries make up for the lack of social and community values by enjoying the comfort of well-developed public institutions or greater personal wealth.

Of course, none of these factors are mutually exclusive, and the best ranking nations tend to excel in a majority of the factors that make up well-being. But this data show what sort of things lead to happier, healthier, and more prosperous nations. And while only 17 percent of adults surveyed in the index described themselves as thriving overall, this research goes a long way towards informing policymakers, community leaders, businesses, and other stakeholders on what makes for a better place for as many people as possible.

Download the original report here to learn more.

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