Nordic countries top the world for happiness

By Tracy Brighten

Happy people

The recently released World Happiness Report 2015 identifies those countries where people are happiest and highlights the value to economies of considering people’s well-being when determining public policy.

Produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the WHR examines Gallup survey data from 2012-2014 and past data from 2005-2007, looking at changes in reported well-being and happiness, as well as analysing reasons for happiness variation across nations and cultures.

Survey results
Nine out of the top 10 countries in 2015 were also in the top 10 of the World Happiness Report 2013, but rankings have changed. Based on subjective measures of well-being, Switzerland is the new world leader, although the Nordic countries still dominate the top ten.

Measured on a scale of 1 to 10, the highest score out of 158 countries was 7.6 and the lowest was 2.8. Three-quarters of the variation between countries is explained by differences in six key variables. In order of significance these variables are:

    1. GDP per capita
    2. social support
    3. healthy life expectancy
    4. freedom to make life choices
    5. generosity
    6. perception of corruption

Some factors were more influential to a country’s score than others. For example, corruption was more influential in a negative way in less politically stable countries.

Asian countries were ranked lower than predicted, but any cultural difference in people’s reporting was accounted for. By contrast, Latin American countries were ranked higher than predicted, with strong family and societal support as a possible explanation.

Unlike previous reports, this latest report also compares data by gender, age, and region. As well as overall life evaluations, which showed little variation by gender, positive and negative experiences were measured with wide variations found by gender, age and region. Positive experiences are happiness, laughter, enjoyment, feeling safe at night, feeling rested, and feeling interested. Negative experiences are anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

Analysis from experts in economics, neuroscience and national statistics is included in the report, which is edited by Professor John F. Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; Professor Richard Layard, Director of the Well-Being Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance; and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of SDSN.

Analysis and solutions
The report includes a chapter that gives special consideration to the under-18 age group. Mental health affects life satisfaction, but while a significant number of adults with mental health problems showed signs at 15, teenagers do not receive treatment, even in wealthier countries.

“As we consider the value of happiness in today’s report, we must invest early on in the lives of our children so that they grow to become independent, productive and happy adults, contributing both socially and economically,” said Layard.

The report also provides examples of initiatives that promote citizen well-being. With global appeal, UK-based NGO Action for Happiness aims to promote positive actions that consider others as a means to improve mental well-being and foster a happier, more caring society.

Dubai Plan
In the United Arab Emirates, ranked 20, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum emphasises people’s happiness as the main objective of the Dubai Plan 2021. The WHR shares the plan’s vision for Dubai as “a city of happy, creative and empowered people; an inclusive and cohesive society; the preferred place to live, work and visit; a smart and sustainable city; a pivotal hub in the global economy; and a pioneering and excellent government.”

This vision is the result of a partnership between civil society, private, and public sectors, and it offers an example of public policy based on social as well as economic factors.

Bristol Happy City Project
The Bristol Happy City project is another model that cities around the world could follow.

Helliwell is optimistic that scientific research on happiness can be used to improve quality of life. “We are encouraged that more and more governments around the world are listening and responding with policies that put well-being first. Countries with strong social and institutional capital not only support greater well-being, but are more resilient to social and economic crises,” said Helliwell.

The report authors suggest a new method of cost-benefit analysis using happiness as the measure of benefit rather than money. They also consider the neuroscience behind well-being and happiness that shows training in mindfulness, kindness, and generosity can create brain changes which enhance the prospect of happiness.

Social capital
Jeffrey Sachs discusses the importance of social capital to well-being and economic prosperity. Social capital is measured in generalised trust, social support, generosity and voluntarism, and perceptions of corruption in business and government.

According to Sachs, trust is crucial to daily life, in both personal and business communication, and it develops from the confidence that people will behave honestly and morally. Without trust, economic and social dealings are more difficult. The WHR found that the top countries reported higher levels of trust in individuals and government.

Countries vary widely in social capital. Scandinavian countries have high social capital and a corresponding high ranking in the happiness survey.

So how can societies best develop virtuous citizens, a question much debated in philosophical and religious thought. Sachs proposes ten objectives to improve trust and develop social capital, including:

  • moral training in schools
  • increased access to education to empower people to be more active citizens
  • compassion and mindfulness training; professional codes of ethics that foster openness
  • reduction in public-sector corruption; reduction in wealth inequality
  • strong social safety nets as seen in Scandinavia

The report suggests then that government investment in social capital can return significant economic benefits through happier, healthier, more co-operative citizens.

Image credit:

First published on The News Hub  April 25, 2015