It may not be surprising that Americans are not the happiest people on earth. According to a new United Nations World Happiness Report, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland lead the pack as the happiest nations on earth. Still, according to these measures, the U.S. does come in respectably at 17th out of 156 countries surveyed.
The second annual UN World Happiness Report, released Monday, follows some fuzzy science to try to measure how happy the populations are in comparison to one another. While it attempts to rank a vague concept, the new study does present some interesting findings. Happiness as they define it is, of course, strongly correlated with financial well-being. But this isn't all that matters. Political change, like reductions in corruption, can improve happiness. Improving mental health can also significantly improve national happiness.
The report is published by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), under the auspices of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with the guidance of experts across disciplines including economics, psychology, survey analysis, and national statistics. Lead researchers on the project include John F. Helliwell of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the London School of Economics's Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute.
This map compiled by the Washington Post of the findings reveals just how geographically concentrated "happiness" is according to these measures.
All told, the UN found the highest levels of happiness in the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Scandinavia had a particularly high "happy" rate, with Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland all among the top 10. The 10 lowest ranked countries are all in Africa. The least happy country listed was Togo. While Western powers like the U.S. and U.K. fell towards the middle (at 17 and 24 respectively), Russia and China ranked significantly lower (at 68 and 93 respectively).
Economic well-being is an obvious and significant indicator of happiness. This is visible, for example, as countries experiencing major economic dips such as Greece and Italy saw declines in happiness by UN measures.
Still, the report claims happiness doesn't all boil down to finances. It reported discernible increases in happiness in poorer areas of Africa, for example, that have experienced political improvements such as the decreases in political strife and corruption experienced in a reforming Angola. Additionally, countries that invest in mental health awareness and treatment had higher rates of happiness.
So why is Denmark so happy? Apparently this is old news. Oprah did a segment asking just this question in 2009, finding that homelessness, poverty, and unemployment were extremely rare in the 5.5 million person nation. The government will pay 90% of salary to anyone unemployed for up to four years. In Copenhagen, people are said to be very environmentally conscious, leading a third of the population to ride bikes around the city, allowing Danes to skip conventional commuter traffic. Danes also have a good municipal structure for following up on youth at risk, as well as an accessible health system that widely reimburses psychological therapies, according to the OECD.
Overall, the study's biggest takeaway seems to be its identification of chronic mental illness as a highly influential factor that dampens national happiness in any context. "If we want a happier world," writes Chris Wade in reaction to this year's rankings in Slate Magazine, "We need a completely new deal on mental health." While many countries struggle to improve financial health in today's global economic crisis, initiatives to improve mental health are extremely important, and the UN report helps highlight this.