Global Economics

Rating Countries for the Happiness Factor


A study pulled together from sources and surveys found that good health care and education are as important as wealth to modern happiness

Editor's Note: For a look at a newer study of global happiness, see Survey Says: People Are Happier

Feeling sad? Researchers at Britain's University of Leicester reckon you might just be in the wrong country. According to Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist at Leicester who developed the first "World Map of Happiness," Denmark is the happiest nation in the world.

White's research used a battery of statistical data, plus the subjective responses of 80,000 people worldwide, to map out well-being across 178 countries. Denmark and five other European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, and Iceland, came out in the top 10, while Zimbabwe and Burundi pulled up the bottom.

Not surprisingly, the countries that are happiest are those that are healthy, wealthy, and wise. "The most significant factors were health, the level of poverty, and access to basic education," White says. Population size also plays a role. Smaller countries with greater social cohesion and a stronger sense of national identity tended to score better, while those with the largest populations fared worse. China came in No. 82, India ranked 125, and Russia was 167. The U.S. came in at 23.

IT'S SUBJECTIVE.

White's study, to be published later this year, was developed in part as a response to the British media's fascination with life satisfaction. A recent BBC survey concluded that 81% of Britain's population would rather the government make them happier than richer.

Despite its often bleak weather, England ranked relatively happy at 41. "There is increasing political interest in using measures of happiness as a national indicator along with measures of wealth," White says. "We wanted to illustrate the effects of global poverty on subjective well-being to remind people that if they want to address unhappiness as an issue the need is greatest in other parts of the world."

To produce the "Happy Map," White dug deep. He analyzed data from a variety of sources including UNESCO, the CIA, The New Economics Foundation, and the World Health Organization. He then examined the responses of 80,000 people surveyed worldwide.

MONEY STILL COUNTS.

Good health may be the key to happiness, but money helps open the door. Wealthier countries, such as Switzerland (2) and Luxembourg (10) scored high on the index. Not surprisingly, most African countries, which have little of either; scored poorly. Zimbabwe, which has an AIDS rate of 25%, an average life expectancy of 39, and an 80% poverty rate, ranked near the bottom at 177. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis gave fellow Africans in Burundi, ranked 178, even less to smile about, despite their having a slightly lower poverty rate of 68%.

Capitalism, meanwhile, fared quite well. Free-market systems are sometimes blamed for producing unhappiness due to insecurity and competition, but the U.S. was No. 23 and all the top-ranking European countries are firmly capitalist—albeit of a social-democratic flavor.

White says the only real surprise in his findings was how low many Asian countries scored. China is 82, Japan 90, and India an unhappy 125. "These are countries that are thought as having a strong sense of collective identity, which other researchers have associated with well-being," he says.

ARE WE HAPPY YET?

White admits that happiness is subjective. But he defends his research on the grounds that his study focused on life satisfaction rather than brief emotional states. "The frustrations of modern life, and the anxieties of the age, seem to be much less significant compared to the health, financial, and educational needs in other parts of the world."

One of the study's intentions was to see how Britain, given media preoccupation with well-being, fared compared to other parts of the globe. His conclusion: "The current concern with happiness levels in the U.K. may well be a case of the 'worried well.'"

To take a tour of the world's happiest countries, click here.

Business Exchange related topics:Work-Life BalanceEmerging MarketsSustainable Economy

Kamenev is an intern in BusinessWeek's London bureau.

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