How exactly does one rank countries for finding happiness? At face value, that certainly seems subjective but there is a method behind this story. We already know people would rather have joyful experiences over owning things when it comes to happiness, but there’s much more to this.
In April 2012, the United Nations convened for a high-level meeting on ‘Well-Being and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.’ And finding a new model to understand happiness is exactly what they did.
The Gallup World Poll team was instrumental in collecting life evaluations data which was no easy task in 2020 for obvious reasons.
It was helpful that grants were provided from The Ernesto Illy Foundation, illycaffè, Davines Group, The Blue Chip Foundation, The William, Jeff, and Jennifer Gross Family Foundation, The Happier Way Foundation, just to name a few.
Worried or sad?
So what are these life evaluations that the Gallop World Poll collected? For the world as a whole, based on the annual data, there was no overall
change in positive affect, but there was a roughly 10% increase in the number of people who said they were worried or sad the previous day. That’s not good for rankings.
Trust and the ability to count on others are major supports to life evaluations, especially in the face of crises. To feel that your lost wallet would be returned if found by a police officer, by a neighbor, or a stranger, is estimated to be more important for happiness than income, unemployment, and major health risks. This seems to fall under the “worry” criteria.
In the well-being approach, we consider total well-being, whoever experiences it, and for whatever reason: All policy-makers should aim to maximize the Well-Being-Adjusted Life-Years (or WELLBYs) of all who are born.
This approach puts a lower value than is customary upon money relative to
life. According to many studies in rich countries, an extra $1 raises WELLBYs by around 1/100,000 points.
But an extra year of life increases WELLBYs by around 7.5 WELLBYs. So, the community should value a year of life equally to $750,000 of GDP. a longer life seems to trump money on this one.
Finland comes in at number one for joyful living. Finland consistently seems to be a top country for finding happiness and is once again ranked number one (2018-2020 report also had Finland ranked as number one).
Finland’s secret sauce seems to be a combination of a strong social safety net, a high-quality education system, and the only country in the developed world where fathers spend more time with school-aged children than mothers.
The Finnish society has been built in such a way that people are supported but still feel like they have control over their lives.
Finland excels with its quietly world-class public services, low levels of crime and inequality, and high levels of trust in authority.
The travel industry has capitalized on being a top country for finding happiness, with Finland’s tourist office appointing Finnish ‘happiness ambassadors’ tasked with introducing visitors to the secrets of Finnish well-being.
One major key to the Finnish brand of happiness is going outdoors to enjoy the country’s vast forests and thousands of lakes, as well as the traditional Finnish steam bath, the sauna.
The Finns take their happiness and ranking very seriously. If they ever get knocked down to number 2, the stress levels of these gentle Nordic dwellers could reach epic proportions.
Moving up to the number two spot in happiness from number 4 the previous year, we’d say that’s gotta make them happy. Happiness has a perpetual motion, get that snowball rolling and it builds bigger and bigger.
A little fun fact-
There was a meeting of well-being leaders in Reykjavik, with Iceland hosting New Zealand and Finland, all three countries having female heads of government. There you have it, 2 of the top 5 countries for happiness are led by women.
Iceland is a small society where most family members live close to each other, so links between family and friends are usually strong. These good social contacts are believed to lead to more happiness in general.
Researcher Dóra Guðrún Guðmundsdóttir at Iceland’s Directorate of Health has spent the past 15 years finding out just how happy Icelanders, in general, consider themselves to be.
She points out that the most important thing is how you handle setbacks and that you do it in a constructive manner. That way, individual people will find a higher and deeper meaning in life and end up happier.
Interesting to note, during the economic crisis just over 10 years ago, Icelanders proved that money is not as important as many seem to think. 40 % of the adult population remained as happy as ever, 30 % were happier than before and 30 % were less happy than before.
Young people, however, became happier because they got to spend more time with their parents and families after the financial crash.
“Those who enjoy meaningful relations have something that is stronger than whatever happens in society,” says Dóra. Icelanders also feel they have many opportunities to develop and influence their own lives which seems to be a re-occurring theme when it comes to happiness.
Once again, we find life is good in a Nordic country, with Denmark coming in at number three for the top countries for finding happiness.
Christian Bjørnskov, a professor of economics at Aarhus University, researches happiness. He sees a strong relationship between happiness and empowerment.
“Danes feel empowered to change things in their lives,” says Professor Bjørnskov. “What is special about Danish society is that it allows people to choose the kind of life they want to live. They rarely get caught in a trap. This means they’re more satisfied with their lives.” It’s safe to say that control over one’s life is is a really big deal.
According to the World Happiness Report, happiness is closely linked to social equality and community spirit – and Denmark does well on both. Denmark has a high level of equality and a strong sense of common responsibility for social welfare.
People living in Denmark pay some of the world’s highest taxes – up to half of their income. But most Danes will tell you that they are happy to pay taxes because they can see what they get in return.
Most Danes believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to work if they can and pay taxes to support the common good.
We find Switzerland landing at number 4, moving down a notch from the previous report. A country that has a second breakfast as the norm (The Znüni ) and makes delicious croissants called Gipfeli, you know you’re on the right track for being a top country for happiness.
Speaking of tasty treats, Switzerland and chocolate go hand in hand, and eating chocolate releases endorphins into the brain which makes you happy.
The Swiss are also known for their amazing cheese. Cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid that’s been shown to lower and relieve stress as well as make you sleepy. Sleepy-time is a happy time when you’re all grown up.
Despite the cheese and chocolate, the Swiss keep it lean as with one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe, coming in at just 10 percent. We already know food makes us happy but the Swiss have this dialed in.
Coming in at number five when it comes to countries for finding happiness, the Netherlands attributes this to their democracy and high level of stability.
The Dutch are good at adapting, and recovering from the worst of times and focus on a life of pleasure, a life of engagement, and a life of meaning.
The Unicef report “An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries” that came out in February 2007 put Dutch children as the self-reported happiest and British children as the unhappiest of 24 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
Yet Dutch children didn’t, overall, possess more books or computers, go on holidays more frequently or have other clear material advantages over British children. It’s all how you’re taught to perceive life.
Naturally, the Netherlands is categorized as a Nordic country, which once again tells us fiercely, snowy winters aren’t as depressing as it sounds. Their happiness falls back on the high levels of social and institutional trust.
Where does the United States rank in top countries for happiness?
The United States ranks 14. Americans enjoy being in one of the wealthiest countries along with a high life expectancy although there are better countries to live in if you want a longer life.
If you live in America, you can look at the above countries and see where we are lacking, especially in benevolence institutional trust.
We go up and down but our consistency is that we are still the most generous nation on the planet.
Throw in one heck of a beautiful country with bucket-list-worthy places to visit and Americans can be as happy as any Nordic country.