Am I Doomed to a Life of Less Than Optimal Happiness?

Today is International Day of Happiness, and it is also the day that the newest World Happiness Report was released.

The report, developed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranks the world’s countries based on happiness.

Norway jumped three spots and displaced three-time winner Denmark to take the title of “world’s happiest country” for the first time. Denmark dropped to second place this year, followed by Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and Sweden (which tied for ninth place).

The United States? 14th place, a drop of one spot.

The ranking is based on answers to a simple life evaluation question developed decades ago by a social scientist and posed to people around the world between 2014 and 2016 by Gallup, the polling organization:

Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

The average global score was 5.3 (which is kind of depressing to me, thinking that people just have an average level of life satisfaction), based on hundreds of thousands of surveys conducted by Gallup over those years. The top five countries — Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland — all have scores just above or below 7.5. The Central African Republic, the lowest ranked country, had a score of 2.7.

So what makes the Scandinavian countries so happy?

According to an article on, it looks like the answer comes down to neighborly support between citizens and state support programs for those in need. People want to feel secure and they also benefit from having a community that they can count on — an environment the Scandinavian countries do better than most in creating.

“The Scandinavian countries are very big on social support,” Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, one of the study’s associate editors, said. “The top countries, you can see, have societies which are not at each others throats. But also they have high GDP per capita.”

“Creating positive social spaces where people can have good face to face interactions with each other is a start,” he said. “If you bring people together, if you have them helping other people, they feel better about themselves and about society.” De Neve also believes that job security and conditions in a workplace can have a dramatic impact on levels of happiness.

In addition, according to Professor John Helliwell, the study’s editor, these countries offer unemployment insurance and child support, and integrate these programs and have packages that are tailored for different individuals. Immigrants in these countries are often given help with language skills and those out of work are offered places on work experience programs, to avoid “the scarring of long term unemployment.”

Here are some other interesting takeaways from the report:

  • The authors found that three-quarters of the variation among countries can be explained by six economic and social factors: gross domestic product per capita (a basic measure of national wealth); healthy years of life expectancy; social support (having someone to rely on during times of trouble); trust (a perceived absence of corruption in government and business); the perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (measured by donations).
  • Jeffrey Sachs, the report’s co-editor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, states, “The World Happiness Report continues to draw global attention around the need to create sound policy for what matters most to people — their well-being. As demonstrated by many countries, this report gives evidence that happiness is a result of creating strong social foundations. It’s time to build social trust and healthy lives, not guns or walls (emphasis added). Let’s hold our leaders to this fact.”
  • Helliwell notes that an emphasis on the future over the present in the Scandinavian countries is made easier by high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance.
  • De Neve, who co-authored the report’s chapter on happiness at work, added that people in well-paid roles are happier, but money is only one predictive measure of happiness. “Work-life balance, job variety and the level of autonomy are other significant drivers,” said De Neve.
  • And it turns out that the colder weather and longer nights associated with Scandinavia might actually help bring communities together.”There is a view which suggests that historically communities that lived in harsher weather were brought together by greater mutual support,” Helliwell said. So the colder climate of the Northern [European] countries might actually make social support easier.”

Since I have no interest in living in a colder climate, does that mean I’m doomed to a life of unhappiness?

Well let’s see what the report’s author have to say about the U.S.

Despite gains in per capita income and healthy years of life expectancy, happiness in the United States declined 0.51 points between the two-year periods ending in 2007 and 2016, they found.

“We’re getting richer, but our social capital is deteriorating,” Dr. 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.

Sounds like a good plan to me; we just need out leaders to buy into such efforts as well.

And if they do, maybe I can be just as happy sitting on a beach in Florida as those people shivering in Norway.

By the way, I’ve previously written about the World Happiness Report,

as well as happiness in general:

Published by

Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *