Scandinavians Are the World’s Happiest People

When I visited Scandinavia via a cruise with my fiance last summer, we were both struck by the pleasantness of the Nordic people and how beautiful and well organized the country seemed to be. While we only spent a day or so in each country, it corresponded with everything I had read about their high rankings in all sorts of international metrics, from quality of life to good governance.

Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the New York Times reported that Norway was recently found to be the world’s happiest country last year, followed closely by its Nordic neighbors.

After placing fourth last year, Norway is now the world’s happiest country, according to the 2017 World Happiness Report, released on Monday. The Central African Republic was the least happy of 155 countries.

The authors of the report found that a half-dozen socioeconomic factors explain much of the difference in happiness among countries, but that social factors play an underappreciated role. As evidence, they cite periods of substantial economic growth that were nonetheless matched by declining happiness in China and the United States, which ranked 14th.

Even in Norway and several other Nordic countries that dominated the top of the list, economics alone did not explain the high rates of happiness.

“It takes good social foundations and trust,” said John Helliwell, one of the report’s editors and a professor emeritus in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

Norway and the other top five countries — Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland — all have scores around 7.5, compared to the global average of 5.3. The country at the very bottom, the Central African Republic, scored a little less than 2.7.

The researchers found that most of the variation among countries was explained by six economic and social factors:

  1. GDP per capita (i.e. national wealth)
  2. Life expectancy
  3. Social support (having someone to rely on during times of trouble)
  4. Trust (a perceived absence of corruption in government and business)
  5. Sense of freedom to make life choices
  6. Generosity (as measured by donations)

Hence there is more to individual, and thus societal, happiness than just money: feeling that you have people to fall back on, that most institutions are well governed and honest, and that members of communities can be trusted to look out for each other go a long way towards making one feel happy, which makes perfect sense.

This also explains why the world’s richest and most country by a wide margin, the United States, ranked 14th despite increases in per capita GDP and life expectancy.

“We’re getting richer, but our social capital is deteriorating,” Dr. [Jeffrey] Sachs said.

Social support, trust, perceived freedom and generosity all suppress happiness in America. And to offset that drag economically, gross domestic product per capita would have to rise from about $53,000 to $133,000, he argues.

“The country is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse,” he wrote in a chapter dedicated to America’s flagging happiness. “Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth.”

To fix that social fraying, Dr. Sachs argues policy makers should work toward campaign finance reform, reducing income and wealth inequality, improving social relations between native-born and immigrant populations, overcoming the national culture of fear induced by the Sept. 11 attacks, and improving the educational system.

Indeed, the case of Latin America is instructive in this regard: most of its nations perform better than their economic and political circumstances would suggest. Indeed, according to other studies, countries like Panama and Colombia are the highest ranking in life statistication and happiness. Conversely, East Asian countries like Japan and Korea are less happier despite their higher-than-average wealth and stability. Culture clearly plays a role, though how and to what degree varies from country to country.

UPDATE: This year’s World Happiness Report has pushed Norway to a respectable second place, with Finland now taking the top spot, up from fifth place last year. Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland remained among the top five. Rounding out the top ten were the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. dropped four places to 18th place, as “ongoing epidemics of obesity, substance abuse and untreated depression” continued to take their toll. In fairness, most major powers did not fare particularly well: Germany came in 15th place, the U.K. in 19th, Japan in 54th, Russia in 59th, and China in 86th. Perhaps population size has something to do with the likelihood of having high social trust?

This year’s report also measured the happiness of immigrant communities, since they often face the challenges of discrimination or integration. Interestingly — and encouragingly — most of the countries that did well in overall societal happiness ranked well when it came to happiness among their immigrant communities: the 10 happiest countries were also 10 of the top 11 in immigrant happiness. Mexico, which came in 24th place overall, placed 10th in immigrant happiness (though this may reflect the fact that over a million Americans, mostly older and wealthier retirees, make up the largest legal immigrant population in the country).

In any event, the study’s authors found the consistency between immigrant and native-born happiness “striking”. Immigrants who came from countries with various happiness levels tended to eventually converge with the higher happiness of their new homes, showing that the most successful countries could broaden the benefits of their good governance and values to people from all over the world.

What are your thoughts?

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