A girl in a park in Managua, Nicaragua. The country topped the list for gains in happiness.
Nicolas Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Norway can be frigid. And the winters bring lots of darkness. But it’s the happiest nation in world, according to the 2017 World Happiness Report.
Denmark comes in at #2, followed by Iceland and Switzerland. Finland takes 5th place. And, it turns out, these countries have more in common than a tolerance for cold.
Well-being is shaped by a range of factors. “All of the top countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance,” according to the report.
The second tier of the top ten includes the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden (the last two tied for 9th position).
The developing world has its share of unhappy countries. According to the report, some of the unhappiest nations in the world are Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.
But there are encouraging signs in low- and middle-income countries. Cameroon, Latvia, Nicaragua and Sierra Leone, for example, are all on the list of the 20 countries reporting the highest gains in happiness.
Meanwhile, happiness in the U.S. has slipped a bit, according to the report. “The reasons are declining social support” as well as a decline in trust — and an increased sense of corruption, write the co-editors in a summary report. In 2015, the U.S. ranked 13th. This year, it slipped to 14th.
The report draws on survey data from 155 countries. “We ask people to think of their lives as a whole,” explains report co-editor John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia who studies well-being and comparative economic growth. Each year, researchers survey 1,000 people in each country.
Some questions are quite simple, such as: In times of trouble, do you have family and/or friends to count on? Other questions measure people’s perceived levels of freedom, generosity and trust — both in each other and in their governments and businesses.
The Nordic countries have among the most generous social safety nets. “Access to higher education, access to high-quality health services are part of it, explains Jon-Åge Øyslebø, minister of communications, cultural affairs and education at the Norwegian Embassy. (We reached out to him before he had heard about the top spot his country had earned in the new report.)
There are also generous social support programs. For instance, new parents in Norway are eligible for nearly a year of leave with pay. “Norway is a relatively egalitarian society with regard to both to income differences and gender,” Øyslebø told us. He says he thinks this is an important part of the happiness equation.
Another factor, of course, is the economy. Overall, Norway is pretty wealthy, in part due to the natural resource of oil. But even though oil prices have declined, Norwegian level of happiness has risen, at least according to the report.
“Absolutely there’s more to it than money,” Øyslebø says. Many studies have shown that after people’s basic needs are met, additional income is not necessarily a path to happiness.
So what’s the value of these global ranking? After all, the survey data that they’re based on are pretty crude measures. And at any given time, in any nation, some people are suffering while others thrive.
“The reason for taking this [report] seriously,” co-editor John Helliwell told us, is that it offers an alternative to thinking of “income as the measure of progress.”