Can you measure happiness among a population? The World Happiness Report thinks so. The report, first published in 2012 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranks 156 countries according to happiness and well-being levels. Each year, researchers release the report in conjunction with the International Day of Happiness.
This year, along with its usual ranking on happiness levels around the world, the report is focused on migration within and between countries; 117 countries are being ranked by the happiness of their immigrants. They’re looking at not only how the people who do the actual moving are affected, but how those left behind and those already living in the destination are coping. It may come as no surprise that those countries that are happiest overall tend to have the happiest immigrants. Beyond that, the report authors dedicated a special section to trying to figure out why happiness levels are plummeting in the United States. Has America forgotten how to be happy?
What Are the Happiest Countries in the World?
In 2018, though the numbers shifted a bit, the top 10 countries are the same as the last two years. As usual, Scandinavian countries are filled with consistently happy and content folks. Finland scored number one, followed by Norway and Denmark. Rounding out the top 5 are Iceland and Switzerland. Canada, our neighbor to the north, hit number 7, while New Zealand, Sweden and Australia scored spots in the top 10.
The United States dropped five spots from 13 to 18. In fact, we’ve never cracked the top 10. Burundia scored as the lowest-ranking country was at No. 156. (1)
- Denmark (This country is famous for happiness-inducing hygge. Check it out!)
- New Zealand
- Costa Rica
- United States
- United Kingdom
- United Arab Emirates
- Czech Republic
To come up with the list, researchers focus on the six key variables that have been found to support a country’s happiness:
- GDP per capita
- Healthy life expectancy
- Social support (measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble)
- Trust (measured by a lack of corruption in business and government)
- Freedom to make life decisions
- Generosity (measured through the number of recent donations)
Because country averages tend to be super close, even small changes in a country throughout the year can have an impact on a ranking.
Key Determinants of Happiness & Misery (No Matter Where You Live)
It might come as a surprise that so much of a country’s happiness is based on social factors, but it does. The researchers found that raising the social foundations of the lower-level countries to the world average would produce a huge boost in happiness. In fact, the effect would be larger than simultaneously raising a country’s GDP per capita and increasing its healthy life expectancy. For example, this happiness boost would include making sure people have someone to count in time times of trouble.
Having a reliable support system when times are tough is equivalent to a 16-fold increase in annual incomes, all by itself — that translates to getting paid $10,000 instead of $600.
Interestingly, mental illness plays a major role in the happiness and misery levels of countries as well. Most studies don’t include mental health as a way of figuring out how satisfied people are in their lives, but these issues definitely have an effect on how we feel about our day-to-day lives and the future.
Happiness Report Findings: What’s Going on in America?
Here in America, we’ve dropped from 13 in 2017 to 18 in the World Happiness Report, which was already down from #12 in 2016. What gives?
The U.S., the study authors suggest, is suffering from the Easterlin Paradox. While our income levels have more than doubled since 1972, our happiness levels have stayed the same or declined. What’s making us so unhappy? A trifecta of health issues: obesity; substance abuse, especially opiod addiction; and signs of depression. (2) While some of us may be making more money, because other factors in American life are worsening, we’re not experiencing the boost in happiness that experts would expect.
While several of the determinants of happiness in the U.S. are steadily declining — most notably our social support networks and confidence in public institutions — it’s our public health that’s the biggest culprit for our increasing unhappiness, according to the report. While other high-income countries’ public health is steadily improving, ours isn’t keeping pace; in fact, it’s in an outright decline. In 2015, our healthy life years were a whopping 4.3 years lower than those of the five longest-living countries, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Italy, and Israel, and it’s expected to decrease even more.
The obesity epidemic plays a strong role in our declining happiness levels. The study singles out high sugar and ultra-processed foods for their role in the prevalence of obesity and metabolic disease in the U.S., but also points out the psychological effects of this disorder on people, including a lower quality of life, anxiety and depression.
The opioid epidemic in the U.S. shouldn’t be dismissed either. In December 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that life expectancy in the country had dropped for the second year in a row. According to study authors, “this reversal in the upward trend of life expectancy is shocking and almost unprecedented for a rich country in recent decades.” According to the CDC, substance abuse, particularly of opioids, has a lot to do with the decline.
The prevalence of prescription opioids, like OxyContin, in the U.S. weight heavily on the results, as do the heavy marketing that pharmaceutical companies did to get these drugs in the hands of patients. One in five patients without cancer or pain-related diagnoses are prescribed opioid medications in the U.S. , while sales of the drug quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. (3)
Finally, mental health in America is struggling. Clinical depression, particularly among adolescents and young adults, even after controlling for substance abuse and sociodemographic factors. Frighteningly, it seems that technology may play a role in it all — people who are depressed turn to their screens for relief, while others may develop addictive behaviors to tech-based activities like video games and suffer as a result.
So what’s the U.S. lacking that countries scoring higher on the happiness report aren’t? The researchers have some ideas:
- Income inequality is a risk factor for all three epidemics — obesity, substance abuse and depression.
- The three epidemics all reinforce each other. If you’re obese, you are at risk for depression. If you’re depressed, you might be more likely to abuse a substance, and so forth.
- Our healthcare system, although it’s by far the most expensive in the world, isn’t set up to tackle these public health issues. In America, the focus is treatment, not prevention.
- Finally, a culture that allows big pharma to peddle opioids and lets the fast food industry market to children and use all sorts of processed food products is partially responsible for allowing this to happen. It’s hard for change to happen when corporate lobbying stops the regulations other (happier) countries have instituted.
Whether you agree with the report’s assessment or not, it certainly provides some interesting food for thought.
Final Thoughts on the World Happiness Report
- What’s the happiest country in the world? According to the World Happiness Report, in 2018, it’s Finland!
- The top 10 happiest countries all score high in these 6 areas: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, trust (measured by a lack of corruption in business and government), freedom to make life decisions and generosity.
- The U.S. has never made the top 10 list since the annual report starting listing the happiest countries in 2012.
- Although U.S. GDP is increasing, happiness levels are dropping. We dropped five spots this year to No. 18.
- There are three major public health issues that are drastically affecting our happiness levels in America: obesity, substance abuse and depression.
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