While Europe may not be the best economically these days, it remains the happiest region in the world. Surveys of national happiness routinely place countries like Norway and Sweden at the head of the global well-being stakes. And it's a similar story with the latest World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
The index is based on a global Gallup poll that asks people to think of themselves on a ladder journeying either upwards towards complete happiness (a 10 score) or down towards misery (a possible 0 score). Gallup surveyed up to 3,000 people in each country over three years, with resulting scores averaging between 7.5 at the top of the rankings to less than 3 at the bottom end.
Switzerland comes out on top followed by Iceland, Denmark and Norway (all have scores between 7.5 and 7.6). Next comes Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia, all with average scores of at least 7.28. The United States is 15th, behind Mexico in 14th.
Nine of the top 10 nations in the latest ranking were in the top 10 in 2013. There's more movement at the bottom, which tends towards sub-Saharan African countries, plus Middle East war-zones like Afghanistan and Syria. Burundi and Togo come last.
The ranking is only part of the report which is written by John Helliwell, Lord Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, three leading lights in the field of happiness economics. The academics run the surveys through a model that shows the importance of factors such as levels of gross domestic product, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and lack of corruption, which make up the colored bars in the charts. The first three factors—social support, incomes, and healthy life expectancy—are the most important in explaining the differences between countries, the academics say.
The rankings show the effect of the global recession on happiness. When the researchers compared numbers for the 2005-7 period with 2012-14, they found that Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and Ecuador were the greatest positive movers, while Greece, Egypt and Italy were the biggest negative movers. The U.S. was also a relatively strong negative mover, with its average score dropping 0.2 points over that time.
In general, across the world, women's evaluations of happiness are higher than for men, and younger people tend to be happier than middle-aged people (which is perhaps not surprising). Happiness tends to improve as people get through middle-life.
The larger goal of the research is to provide an alternative to purely economic measures of national performance like GDP. And, indeed, the authors are confident that a shift is taking place, with governments in Britain, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere all embracing happiness metrics. "Happiness is increasingly considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy," the authors say.