Who in the world is happy?

Last year,a U.N. meeting chaired by Prime Minister of Bhutan, whose country has a “Gross National Happiness Commission,” released the first report seeking to measure happiness in the world. This week it released the 2013 World Happiness Report. The United States didn’t crack the top 10.

First, how do you measure happiness? The researchers considered three types of measurements in the polling: positive emotions, including happiness, on the preceding day; negative emotions on the preceding day; and “evaluations of life as a whole.” The results suggest that when it comes to best and worst it’s better to live in northern climes.

Of the 156 countries measured, the top five are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Sweden. The bottom five are Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Benin, and Togo. The U.S. finished 17th, one place behind Mexico and just ahead of Ireland. Canada was sixth. Interestingly, no countries with populations over 50 million are among the top 10 and only two are in the top 20. Comparing 2005-2007 to 2010-2012, happiness increased the most in Angola, Zimbabwe and Albania. It dropped in the U.S. and, perhaps as one might expect from the news over the last year, the largest decline by far was in Egypt.

Rather than poverty, the report calls mental health “the single biggest determinant” of happiness. It estimates that nearly seven percent of the world population, some 404 million people, suffer from depression and another four percent (272 million) suffer from anxiety. The report observes that despite the number of people affected, mental health issues are “largely ignored by policy makers.”

I do wonder if the approach might bolster the role of mental health to some extent. The survey sought to evaluate “subjective well-being.” Thus, its questions focus on mental states, not economic issues. Although I’m in no position to evaluate such studies but it appears the only economic correlation used in the overall analysis was gross domestic product per capita. The extent to which that measures poverty levels or economic difficulties is unclear to me.

This report offers rich evidence that the systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us much about ways to improve the world’s wellbeing and sustainable development.

2013 World Happiness Report

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