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The Happiest Countries of the World 2017

Yesterday it was the International Day of Happiness, an initiative founded by the UN in 2012. This day is to remind the world, and its leaders, that happiness and well-being would be a more beneficial thing to optimize for, than just economic growth. As many different viewpoints people on this planet have about this and that, I think most of us, at the end of the day, can agree that we all just want a long and happy life.

In this post, I will try to summarize the most interesting findings in the World Happiness Report, which was also released yesterday, and which I have now found some time to go through. The report shows the findings of annual surveys towards around 1000 people per country in 155 different countries, asking about happiness, positive affect, and well-being. They have been conducting these surveys since 2012, when the resolution that founded the International Day of Happiness was adopted. The backbone of this study, is asking the Cantril Ladder question to around 1000 people in each of the 155 countries in the study:

“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?”

But how do we know that cultural differences between countries doesn't make the answer to this question different, depending on your upbringing and thoughts on happiness in general? One strong argument in the report, is that migrants that have moved from one country to another, tend to answer in line with the country they currently live in, rather than the country they are from. What country you live in does actually affect your happiness.

The top countries, ie. the ones with the highest average answer to the Cantril Ladder question above, over the years 2014-2016, are the following. They have an average score of around 7.5.

  • 1 Norway
  • 2 Denmark
  • 3 Iceland
  • 4 Switzerland
  • 5 Finland

And the bottom five countries are, with an average score of 3.4-2.7:

  • 151 Rwanda
  • 152 Syria
  • 153 Tanzania
  • 154 Burundi
  • 155 Central African Republic

The whole list can be studied here.

The natural followup question once you start studying this list, is of course: what makes Norway the happiest country on earth, and what makes Central African Republic the unhappiest? The makers of the report have of course gone to great lengths to answer this question.

When compiling results from research over the years, the following factors have been found to explain almost all of the variance in happiness between countries. So to put it simply, Norway has very strong numbers on these factors, while Central African Republic has very poor numbers.

  • GDP per capita
  • Social support (the answer to the question “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”)
  • Healthy life expectancy
  • Social freedom (the answer to the question “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”)
  • Generosity (the answer to the question "“Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?”)
  • Absence of corruption (answers to the questions “Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not?” and “Is corruption widespread within businesses or not?”)

In the model used in the report, the factors above have different weights. The most important factor for a high rating on the Cantril Ladder question, by far, is social support. (Again we see evidence that supports the conclusion of the Harvard Study of Adult Development – that good relationships is the key to a happy life.) So GDP per capita isn't as important to happiness as many of us might presume.

Other factors that according to research would affect the average happiness level in a country are these two, but due to insufficient or unreliable data, they are not used as explanatory factors for happiness in the World Happiness Report.

  • Unemployment
  • Inequality

There is a whole lot more information in the report, but for a summary, I think I'll end here. Maybe I'll return on some other interesting topics in this report, for example what countries have improved their score the most in the last few years, and why.

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