World Happiness Report: Who is the Happiest of Them All?

World Happiness Day WikiMedia

“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?”

Whats your number? If you are above 5.4, according to the World Happiness Report you are happier than the world average of happiness!

The World Happiness Report was released today, just before World Happiness Day which falls on March 20. The report was based on responses to the Gallup World Poll. By polling approximately 3,000 people in 157 countries, the report was able to rank the countries based on the survey data. The results came down to six total variables:

Gross domestic product per capita (the rawest measure of a nation’s wealth); healthy years of life expectancy; social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble); trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (as measured by donations).

The report was begun in 2012, by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  The SDSN is comprised of social scientists, economists, psychologists, and public health experts from around the world, including members of academia, governments, and private sector experts. The SDSN has goals to end world hunger, world poverty, ensure healthy lives, and promote well-being. It also works closely with the U.N. on their Sustainable Development Goals, put forward in the September 2015 world summit. From the SDSN website:

In 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) to mobilize global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical problem solving for sustainable development, including the design and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Following their adoption, we are now committed to supporting the implementation of the SDGs at local, national, and global scales.

We aim to accelerate joint learning and help to overcome the compartmentalization of technical and policy work by promoting integrated approaches to the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world. The SDSN works closely with United Nations agencies, multilateral financing institutions, the private sector, and civil society.

The organization and governance of the SDSN aims to enable a large number of leaders from all regions and a diverse backgrounds to participate in the development of the network, while at the same time ensuring effective structures for decision making and accountability.

The World Happiness Report was released on an 18 month cycle in 2012, 2013, 2015, and again this year in 2016. It was released this year at the Bank of Italy during a three-day conference on happiness. The 2016 report gave special significants to the importance of inequality in this years’s survey, finding that people are overall happier while living in a place where there is less happiness inequality. The happier everyone else is, the happier you are too.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was one of the three editors for the World Happiness Report. He, in a statement, admonished the idea that wealth and consumerism is the key source of happiness:

“Measuring self-reported happiness and achieving well-being should be on every nation’s agenda as they begin to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed the Goals themselves embody the very idea that human well-being should be nurtured through a holistic approach that combines economic, social and environmental objectives. Rather than taking a narrow approach focused solely on economic growth, we should promote societies that are prosperous, just, and environmentally sustainable.

The libertarian argument that economic freedom should be championed above all other values decisively fails the happiness test: There is no evidence that economic freedom per se is a major direct contributor of human well-being above and beyond what it might contribute towards per-capita income and employment. Individual freedom matters for happiness, but among many objectives and values, not to the exclusion of those other considerations.”

It is worth noting that the United States, a country known for wide social end economic gaps, falls at number 13 on the list. The number 1 spot is taken by Denmark, with a total happiness rating of 7.5. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been a champion of Denmark’s policies for the duration of his time as an elected official, even penning a blog post for Huffington Post on the country. It seems his regard of the country is well-founded. Demnark, along with many of the other countries in the top 10 have lots of social services, higher minimum wages, free universal healthcare, free education, and they promote physically active lifestyles. They are also almost all Western European, largely homogeneous countries, and have retained their top 10 ranking throughout the course of the World Happiness Report since 2012 (only shifting positions within the top 10). The top 10 countries rank as follows:

  1. Denmark
  2. Switzerland
  3. Iceland
  4. Norway
  5. Finland
  6. Canada
  7. Netherlands
  8. New Zealand
  9. Australia
  10. Sweden

Burundi, Syria, Togo, and Afghanistan bring up the rear of the report, with happiness levels as low as 2.9. Professor John F. Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, one of the 3 editors of the World Happiness Report noted that the results of the report will change from year to year in the countries with lower rankings as global crises occur and fade, as corruption diminishes or rises, and as freedoms change. In countries with higher rankings, the changes will be small and related to different issues:

“The rankings show both consistency and change,” said Helliwell. “The consistency at the top reflects mainly that life evaluations are based on life circumstances that usually evolve slowly, and that are all at high levels in the top countries. The year-to-year changes are also moderated by the averaging of data from three years of surveys in order to provide large sample sizes. However, when there have been long-lasting changes in the quality of life, they have led to large changes in life evaluation levels and rankings, as shown by the many countries with large gains or losses from 2005-2007 to 2013-2015.”

You can read the full World Happiness Report for 2016 here in PDF format.


“I see a woman may be made a fool, If she had not a spirit to resist.” William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew