The world’s happiest and saddest countries

Now International Day of Happiness, March 20th, provides a major point for events spreading the influence of global happiness research.

This year’s report emphasises the importance of the social foundations of happiness. This can be seen by comparing the life experiences between the top and bottom ten countries in this year’s happiness rankings.

Despite the fact that the top ten countries remain the same as last year, there has been some shuffling of places. Although Norway ranked in fourth place in 2016, this is the fourth time the Scandinavian country has claimed the number one position.

Most notably, Norway has jumped into first position, followed closely by Denmark (last year’s winner), Iceland (lost one position compared with the last year) and Switzerland (the winner in 2015). These four countries are clustered so tightly that the differences among them are not statistically significant, even with samples averaging 3,000 underlying the averages. Three-quarters of the differences among countries, and also among regions, are accounted for by differences in six key variables, each of which digs into a different aspect of life.

These six factors are GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations). The top ten countries rank highly on all six of these factors.

Last year Denmark led the pack with Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden rounding out the top 10.

Additionally, this year Germany was ranked 16th (the same result as last year) and France 31st (increased one spot from 32rd). The US dropped one spot from 13th to 14th. What is more, the USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better.

Good news is that this year the UK increased its rank from 23rd place last year to 19th this year.

Interestingly mental health explains more of the variance of happiness in Western countries than income. Mental illness also matters in Indonesia, but less than income. Nowhere is physical illness a bigger source of misery than mental illness. Equally, if we go back to childhood, the key factors for the future adult are the mental health of the mother and the social ambiance of primary and secondary schools.

Also the overwhelming importance of having a job for happiness is evident throughout the analysis, and holds across all of the world’s regions.
Beyond the expected finding that those in well-paying jobs are happier and more satisfied with their lives and their jobs, a number of further aspects of people’s jobs are strongly predictive of greater happiness—these include work-life balance, autonomy, variety, job security, social capital, and health and safety risks.

According to the UN report 2017 the unhappiest countries are Afghanistan at 154th followed by Togo and Syria. Burundi comes in last at 157th. Moreover, South Sudan, Liberia, Guinea, Togo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Central African Republic are at the bottom.


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