The World Happiness Report Explains What Makes People Happy

What are the secrets from the happiest people on Earth? Some make sense: Be wealthy, married, and have a job. From there, though, it gets more complicated.

Happiness isn’t easy to quantify, but a lot of people have tried: Bhutan has its Gross National Happiness survey, global research company Ipsos has its annual world happiness poll, and now Columbia University’s Earth Institute has put out the first World Happiness Report, which has the ambitious goal of surveying the state of happiness in the world today and looking at how the science of happiness plays into it.

The report, commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness (yes, that exists), contains over a hundred pages of musings on world happiness. Here’s an ultra-abridged version of the findings.

  • Richer people are happier than poorer people on average, but wealth is only one factor in overall happiness. The same goes for countries, where factors like personal freedom, lack of corruption, and social support are more important.
  • Unemployment obviously reduces happiness, but not because of what you may think. It’s not the loss of income, but the loss of things like self-esteem and workplace social life that lead to a drop in happiness. High unemployment rates can trigger unhappiness even in the employed, who suddenly become fearful of losing their jobs. According to the study, even low-quality jobs yield more satisfaction than being unemployed.
  • In some countries, the self-employed report higher levels of job satisfaction than the employed. The study found a positive correlation between happiness and self-employment in both American and European data, but not in Latin America. The possible reason: Self-employment may be a necessity in developing countries where formal employment is not as readily available. When it’s not a choice, it doesn’t lead to happiness.
  • Higher living standards correspond with increased happiness in some countries, but not all. In the U.S., for example, happiness levels have remained stagnant while living standards have risen over the past 50 years or so.
  • Levels of trust (i.e. whether you think someone would return a cash-stuffed wallet) have fallen dramatically over time in certain countries—including the U.S. and U.K.—but risen in others, like Denmark and Italy. One explanation may be that overall life satisfaction has dropped in the former countries, but has risen in many continental European countries.
  • Lack of perceived equality can reduce happiness. The report explains: "The most positive results are in an interesting time-series study using both the U.S. General Social Survey and Eurobarometer. This finds that in both the U.S. and Europe increases in inequality have (other things equal) produced reductions in happiness. The effect has been stronger in Europe than in the U.S. This difference probably reflects ideological differences: Some 70% of Americans believe that the poor have a chance of escaping poverty, compared with only 40% of Europeans."
  • Mental health is the biggest contributing factor to happiness in all countries, but only a quarter of mentally ill people get sufficient treatment in the most developed nations.
  • Married people across the world (studies have been done in the U.S., EU countries, Switzerland, Latin America, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia) claim that they’re happier than single counterparts. A stable family life also contributes to happiness.

It’s not hard to conclude from these findings that gross domestic product is not the ultimate indicator of happiness.

The report sums it up well:

"GDP is important but not all that is important. This is especially true in developed countries, where most or all of the population has living standards far above basic material needs. Except in the very poorest countries happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than with income. And in the richest countries it is essential not to subordinate the happiness of the people to the 'interests of the economy,' since the marginal utility of income is low when income is so high. The economy exists to serve the people, not vice versa. Incremental gains in income in a rich country may be much less beneficial to the population than steps to ensure the vibrancy of local communities or better mental health. "

Check out the whole report here (PDF).

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  • Artur Boaventura Silva

    I think all the factors that conduces to hapiness are relative and cannot be compared between countries, because the state of hapiness is usually stablished by comparision with the society where we live in.

    I also think that exists others sensible factors that influence hapiness, such as residence location, climate, security, absence of wars and internal conflicts, sense of comunity, sports, food, family emigration, etc.

  • elephantrider

    I will not attempt to paraphrase. Do yourself a huge favor purchase" The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonanthan Haidt and a comfortable pen to write with in the margins, read, connect grow and expand your own personal thoughts on happiness.

  • Optimist

    Super cool that people care about polling happiness :-) Putting this on the agenda seems like a nice stride for humanity.

  • wonderer

    Completely agree with you. In my view only fools would choose wealth over happiness if they had to choose.

    GDP divided by the number of inhabitants in a country (GDP per capita) can be deceiving as a measure of general well-being. Wealth distribution has to be accounted for.

    In developed countries which have already achieved a high degree of material well-being for their citizens, we are starting to realize that when you reach a certain level, an endless pursuit of material accumulation does not increase happiness and well-being. 

  • Lisa

    Thank you Johnny! I'll try to take it easy as much as I can. The problem is that there's always a lot to do with so little time! And when I decide to relax, let go, ignore and enjoy the moment, I stress even more later when I find things has accumulated in a way I cannot really manage to finish on time ( before the day ends!) it's a vicious circle, believe me! But I'm a believer, I pray every now & then during the day for God to help, I know I have to change from the inside, it's all in a person's head: a decision to make, be stronger than your own self! Unbelievable but true! Thank you again, and God bless...

  • wonderer

    In our imperfect world, the karma of perfectionists is to be unhappy. How could it be any different?

    Here is some food for thought which is also meant to be funny. Lots of it is from "Don't sweat the small stuff" (and it's all small stuff).If you can't stop and relax because you feel you're irreplaceable, I tell you graveyards are are filled with irreplaceable people.What would you like on your tumbstone? "she kept a tidy house" ?No one ever said "I should have kept the house cleaner" or "I should have spent more time at the office" before dying.

  • CitizenWhy

    Why must we talk about happiness? I have never understood what anyone means when they talk about happiness, except for the medical term "failure to thrive." This term can apply in ways that are different from the medical definition, but it gets at the heart of what is a less than good life and one that is a good life. People thrive or they don't. If they don't some changes would help. If they do they do not have to think about happiness.

    I do not know what happiness is. But I do know that I lead a good life, even as I recognize how badly the US is governed and the meanness of so many, but not most of the people I meet in my three days a week of playing the flaneur.

    I have a modest but quite adequate income in retirement. I am single, I don't have a job and don't want one (becuase I'm OK financially, as long as I do not attempt to own a car). I am not well off, sort of. But I am well off in the civic infrastructure available to me.

    I have a cheap monthly bus pass. Where I live is served by 5 bus lines. I can walk downtown to cheap cultural resources (including excellent theater) and take short bus rides to others. There is a an excellent inexpensive organic restaurant within walking distance and a decent old-fashioned breakfast all day cafe. I can take advanatge of the free intellectual events at a nearby leading university. I have random conversations with interesting and often amusing young people whose quirkiness keeps me smiling for days. I have no friends, so no relationship tensions. I love my sunny, nicely laid out cheap apartment. I cook good organic food at home. I don't go to doctors, don't take prescription drugs, and am blessed with a slight heart condition that guarantees a sudden death with no lingering, prior symptoms. Most of all, I have finally learned the work I must do to put my my many ideas into orderly productions on paper. I don't believe life has a purpose, but I do believe that we can choose to create purpose, not that I want to be purposeful all day. Randomness is its own reward.

    My popint? A good civic infrastructure plus not thinking about happiness and a combination of contemplation, drift, randomness, purposeful and creative tasks (creative being defined broadly, gardening included), genetic disposition, openness to strangers, modest prosperity and no desire to "improve" the people we meet (but a readiness to help, if asked) can make for a good life. Unfortunately for many Americans their civic infrastructure is not good.

  • JohnnySmith0

      The reason is very simple, you're unhappy and get upset very easily because you want things to be perfect, yet we all know that nothing is perfect or can be perfect. So you're trying to achieve the impossible, so of course that you'd get upset because that can't be done and as a result you get depressed. What you need to do is try and relax a little and go easy on your self. You can't achieve the impossible, so you don't need to be perfect.

  • JohnnySmith0

    If you don't know what happiness is... then you're probably not happy. Happiness is something that you feel, as simple as that. Well, some people could be so alienated from themselves that they don't know what they feel, whether anger or happiness. Some people could be chronically angry yet get defensive and say "I'm not angry" and they may be thoroughly convinced that they're not angry at all.

    But for most people it's pretty simple, you just know when you're happy or sad or angry.

  • Lisa

    Very interesting post! Very interesting! Can I know plz how did you grow to this conclusion about life, what made you become so content, a little bit about your background??? I assume you are above 60 years old, so you've lived a long healthy life! What about family connection & ties, aren't you emotionally attached to some people? You know why I'm asking, bcz I'm a very picky person, I have all the reasons to be" happy" and content, wonderful husband, 3 wonderful little children, I live very close to my family members in the country I love, I'm not working now, so I lack this side of satisfaction, but when I do work, I not very satisfied bcz I lack time then!!!! So, what I was saying is that I have so many reasons to be happy, yet I wake up every day with this unhappy face, I care about the smallest details, I want everything to be perfect around me, I get angry so quickly about even the smallest mistakes!!! I think I'm going crazy! Do you think you can help me plz? Thx, Lisa from Lebanon.

  • Obsessed_Gmr

    If you don't have to think about happiness, then it probably means you're already happy and it comes naturally to you. Unless you're depressed (in which you really just feel nothing), I don't think you can be content with your life and not be happy.

    However, I don't see the problem in trying to make yourself happy, though in a growingly materialistic world (at least in the developed nations), it equates to more superfluous things, in which case I would understand that at times you need to bypass the need to make yourself happy and just be content.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Happiness consists in writing reports that require little research but pay great fees, as do most UN gigs.  I don't this is this first happiness report, only the first done by Columbia for the UN.  There have been happiness reports of various robustness for at least the last 10 years, probably longer.  They all correlate based on the same factors:  health, wealth, social networks, sense of purpose, perceived justice, peace, etc.  What's remarkable is not that several countries rank high on these scales, but that the United States, "The best nation on earth!" according to the blowhards, consistently ranks so low -- not just on the factors, but also in terms of how Americans generally feel about things, ranging from uncertainty to despair.  Yet nothing happens much to change things in this shining democracy.  

    One of the unexpected lessons revealed by happiness studies is that movements for change and change itself happen most often where things are already pretty good and least often where they are pretty bad.  We are creatures of habit, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."  Jefferson held forth that depotism would incite rebellion, but what about self-deprecation and servility?  They only invite more trauma.  If that is a general case, we in the United States are in for a long and bitter hurt.  Hunger Games as the decade's most popular allegory is a sad bellwether.

  • Ruth Ledesma

    The most important factor in individual happiness is the decision to be happy -- the decision to focus on what you have, not what you don't have; the decision to focus on what pleases you, not what displeases you. It's all about the decision to be happy.

  • Zusel ben Shlomo

    Who is rich, he who is satisfied with his lot.

    The Talmud.  Ancient but still true.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Possibly why so few people, Jews among them, study Talmud.  Or Muslims, Sufism.  Or Asians, Taoism.  Or Christians, the writings of Saint Francis.  Who wants to hear that all this mad running around in pursuit of nothing that will endure is really a large waste of time?  Better to keep running.

  • Laura

    The psychologists who happiness note that it is not external circumstances that determine happiness, except in extreme cases (ex.:living below the poverty line).  Resilience is a key muscle to develop for life long happiness. Why? Because with resilience we adapt to the inevitable challenges that we'll face. With resilience we roll with the punches, we see the silver lining, we grow and adapt - we change.

  • Julia

    Just finished reading Martin Seligman's latest book, Flourish, and he notes that the difficulty with happiness research is that up to 80% of the results hinge on how the respondent is feeling at the time he/she took the survey. 

    And, of course, he's big on resiliency as one of the factors in well-being.

  • wonderer

    Happiness: sometimes it's only after you lose it that you realize you had it. Then you crave it. That craving is nostalgia