What better way to kick off the International Day of Happiness than with the latest results of World Happiness Report, conducted annually by the United Nations. This year’s top spot went to Finland, which climbed five places to unseat longtime placeholder Norway (which is still an enviable second).
As The New York Times reported:
Finland is the happiest country in the world, it found, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia. Though in a different order, this is the same top 10 as last year, when Norway was No. 1 and Finland was fifth.
Burundi and Central African Republic, both consumed by political violence, are the least happy countries for the second year in a row. This year, Central African Republic is slightly happier than Burundi; last year, their order was reversed.
As for the United States, it is 18th out of 156 countries surveyed — down four spots from last year’s report and five from 2016’s, and substantially below most comparably wealthy nations. Though the economy is generally strong and per capita income is high, it ranks poorly on social measures: Life expectancy has declined, suicide rates have risen, the opioid crisis has worsened, inequality has grown and confidence in government has fallen.
The top 10 countries’ averages ranged from 7.632 for first-place Finland to 7.272 for 10th-place Australia; the United States’ average was 6.886, down from 6.993 last year. At the bottom of the scale, Burundi’s average was 2.905.
The Guardian points out that such an esteemed ranking would have been unthinkable a few generations ago:
The UN placing is the latest accolade for Finland, a country of 5.5 million people that only 150 years ago suffered Europe’s last naturally caused famine. The country has been ranked the most stable, the safest and best governed country in the world. It is also among the least corrupt and the most socially progressive. Its police are the world’s most trusted and its banks the soundest.
“That Finland is the top scorer is remarkable,” said Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark. “GDP per capita in Finland is lower than its neighbouring Nordic countries and is much lower than that of the US. The Finns are good at converting wealth into wellbeing.
Indeed, all the Scandinavian nations were once among the poorest and most underdeveloped places in the world; their populations plummeted from high rates of death and emigration. Yet by the mid 20th century, they each created economic and political systems that would invest in society and the public good.
“In the Nordic countries in general, we pay some of the highest taxes in the world, but there is wide public support for that because people see them as investments in quality of life for all. Free healthcare and university education goes a long way when it comes to happiness. In the Nordic countries, Bernie Sanders is not viewed as progressive – he is just common sense,” added Wiking, referring to the leftwing US politician who galvanised the Democratic primaries in the 2016 presidential election.
All that, and they still manage to rank among the world’s freest and most competitive economies. (And that’s according to the conservative Heritage Foundation.)
To be sure, the Nordic nations are far from the utopias they are often made out to be, but they are still broadly successful by global standards, and offer proof that investing in society can result in lower crime, greater political stability, sustainable economic growth, and other measures of prosperity.
The overall global results were very mixed, with a roughly equal number of countries becoming significantly happier (58) and significantly less happy (59) compared with the 2008 to 2010 base period.
I know what many of readers are probably thinking: how did the study come to these results anyway? Well, it is certainly true that measuring something as intangible as happiness is always tricky; it is not quantifiable like other measures of well being, such as GDP, number of individuals with insurance, etc.
The U.N. relied on Gallup surveys conducted from 2015 to 2017 that utilized a ranking system known as the Cantril Scale: thousands of respondents were asked to imagine a ladder with steps numbered 0 to 10 and to choose which step they felt they stood on. It may seem unusual, but I think it is as good a measure as any for capturing something as subjective and personal as life satisfaction.
Subjective as it is, though, there are some clear, quantifiable, and objective patterns in the results:
Explaining why one country is happier than another is a dicey business, but the report cites six significant factors: G.D.P. per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels.
Dr. Sachs noted that the happiest countries have very different political philosophies from the United States. Most of the top 10 are social democracies, which “believe that what makes people happy is solid social support systems, good public services, and even paying a significant amount in taxes for that.”
Technically, you can achieve these results without relying on taxpayer-funded states policies: if everyone took it upon themselves to be socially responsible in how they conduct themselves personally, professionally, or politically, we would probably not need the government to impose these sorts of programs. For example, there would be no need for, say, a minimum wage if most businesses paid a livable wage.
However, insofar as most nations with generous welfare states are free and democratic, it appears that the big government approach is not an authoritarian imposition, but a mechanism they have accepted as the most efficient means to this end. In theory, any society that manages to promote civic duty community service, generosity, and other “prosocial” values could become an overall happier place with or without relying on the government. Then again, many of the places with welfare states also tend to have generous, law abiding citizens anyway, so it is not like this is an either/or proposition.
This year’s report is also noticeable for turning attention to immigrants, a rather topical choice given that immigration has become a highly contentious issue these past few years. The results are also surprising.
Most notably, [the report] found that the happiness of a country’s immigrants is almost identical to that of its population at large — indicating, Dr. Helliwell said in an interview, that “people essentially adjust to the average happiness level of the country they’re moving to.”
“The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live,” the report’s executive summary said. “Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live.”
This cuts both ways: A person who moves to a country high on the happiness list will probably become happier, and a person who moves to a lower-ranked country will probably become less happy.
The study did not examine how national immigration policies affect happiness. However, it did examine the findings of Gallup’s new “migrant acceptance index,” which measured public attitudes toward immigrants in various countries. These attitudes are not always correlated with national policies: The United States, for example, ranks highly on the migrant acceptance index, even though the Trump administration has pursued more restrictive immigration laws.
In countries with high migrant acceptance indexes — that is, countries where the populace is generally receptive to newcomers — immigrants “are happier than their other circumstances would indicate, and so were the people who were born there,” Dr. Helliwell said. “That sort of openness turns out to be good for both.”
Ultimately, what this and other studies seem to be convering on is that happiness is not just a matter of personal willpower or decision-making: one’s social, political, economic, and even physical environment go a long way towards shaping individual well being. It is difficult to be happy while the world around you falls apart, or you are deprived of individual freedom, or everyone is fighting each other.
Of course there are exceptions — by some metrics, Panama and Colombia are among the happiest countries in the world, although they are now in better shape politically and economically — but by and large what makes us happy as individuals is no mystery. Whether we like it or not, we depend on others — our social networks, communities, and wider society — to provide the values, conditions, and opportunities that allows us to live fulfilling and happy lives.
What are your thoughts?