Happiness is definitely not an easy thing to measure. Many people believe that happiness means wealth, good health, job security, and a stable family. However, a report made by Columbia University’s Earth Institute commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness shows that it’s more complicated. According to the report, various aspects such as political freedom, strong social networks, and the absence of corruption play different roles among the top and bottom countries. The main purpose of the report’s editors, John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, was to “review the state of happiness in the world today and show how the new science of happiness explains personal and national variations in happiness.”
The top spot on the World Happiness Report was taken by Denmark, followed by Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands. Canada finished at a very decent fifth place, as the most happy non-European country. The ranking was based on a measurement called the “life evaluation score,” which assesses factors such as people’s health, family, job security, political freedom, and government corruption on a zero-to-ten scale. The average score of these top four was 7.6, while the least happy countries, including Togo, Benin, the Central African Republic, and Sierra Leone, had an average life evaluation score of 3.4.
The measurement takes into consideration the results of previous reports on happiness from the Gallup World Poll, the World Values Survey, the European Values Survey and the European Social Survey. Most of these previous reports have connected personal satisfaction with income; however, that parallel has been questioned in recent years by economists who have suggested that the happiness of a nation is determined by far more than its gross national product. For example, the world’s economic superpower, the United States, has achieved substantial economic and technological progress in the past half century, but U.S. citizens do not feel happier than they did 50 years ago. On the other hand, uncertainties and anxieties have grown, social and economic inequalities have substantially increased, social trust has declined, and confidence in the government has fallen into an all-time low.
Factors Affecting Happiness
The report indicates that, on average, richer people are happier than poorer people, but wealth is only one factor in overall happiness. The same principle applies for those countries where factors such as personal freedom, lack of corruption, and social support play a more important role. Furthermore, it’s clear that unemployment reduces happiness, yet the reasons are not that obvious. It’s not because of the loss of income, but the loss of values such as self-esteem and workplace social life leads to a decline in happiness. High unemployment rates can even lower happiness of the employed, who become anxious about losing their jobs. The study confirms that even low-quality jobs bring more satisfaction than being unemployed.
Apparently, there’s an interesting correlation between levels of trust (for example if you believe that people in your country would return a stuffed wallet) and the overall level of happiness. Many continental European countries recorded an increase in both levels of trust and happiness, while overall satisfaction has dropped in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where the level of trust fell dramatically.
In the last 30 years, as living standards have risen, the world has become a little happier (by 0.14 times the standard deviation of happiness around the world). However, happiness is unequally distributed among different regions and nations, but still not as unevenly as income. For example, Germany, the richest country in Europe ranked, at a relatively low 30th place, while Japan finished 44th and South Korea managed 56th. The report informs,
“While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met, happiness varies more with the quality of human relationship than with income. Policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect, which government can influence through inclusive participatory policies; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all.”
The most important factor contributing to happiness in all countries is mental health. Yet still, only a quarter of mentally ill people receive sufficient treatment in the most developed nations.
Moreover, the report shows that lack of perceived equality can affect happiness in a negative way. It explains,
The most positive results are in an interesting time-series study using both the U.S. General Social Survey and Eurobarometer. This finds that in both the U.S. and Europe increases in inequality have (other things equal) produced reductions in happiness. The effect has been stronger in Europe than in the U.S. This difference probably reflects ideological differences: some 70 per cent of Americans believe that the poor have a chance of escaping poverty, compared with only 40 per cent of Europeans.
Even though the report proved that also other factors than wealth play an important role in overall happiness, wealthier nations far outscore the poorer ones. These other factors start to affect the happiness of a country more significantly when it reaches a certain economic level.