PUBLIC HEALTH
September 23, 2013

Global Happiness on the Agenda at the U.N.

The World Happiness Report is out. It may surprise those who think all they need is a palm tree by the sea.

The second annual United Nations World Happiness Report is out and once again northern European countries top the list of places home to happy people around the world. Of the 156 countries surveyed, the highest levels of happiness were found in Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The United States placed 17th, right between Mexico and Ireland. Interestingly, with Canada sixth, both of the United States' two closest neighbors score higher than the USA. Other European countries also tended to rank fairly high: The United Kingdom came in at 22nd, and Germany was 26th. Japan was ranked 43rd and China 93rd. Global happiness rose slightly overall between this report and last year's.

The study is designed to serve as a way of urging heads of state to put happiness on the global agenda as they meet for the United Nations General Assembly this week.

The report is more than just a numbered list. It's a view of world well-being through an entirely different lens from the one dominated by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that is employed by most economists. It looked at not just how people view their immediate emotions, but also their lives as a whole.

People were asked to respond to three types of measures of happiness according to the report: “measures of positive emotions (positive affect) including happiness, usually asked about the day preceding the survey; measures of negative emotions (negative affect) again asked about the preceding day; and evaluations of life as a whole.”

The study is designed to serve as a way of urging heads of state to put happiness on the global agenda as they meet for the United Nations General Assembly this week. Of the 130 countries included in both reports, the happiness in 60 increased while in 41 it decreased. Latin America, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa rose in the ranks, while happiness declined markedly in South Asia and Western Europe.

The leading cause of misery in every country, according to the report's findings, is mental illness. Unemployment, separation and bereavement were also common sources of unhappiness around the globe. Behaving well made people happier.

Happier countries tended to be wealthier ones, but social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom were more important to happiness than money.

The report found that about 75% of the differences in happiness among nations can be attributed to six factors: freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy, income, perception of corruption, prevalence of generosity and social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble).

Happy people live longer, are more productive and are also better citizens. “There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people, as they themselves characterize their well-being,” report co-editor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University said in a statement.

The World Happiness Report 2013 (pdf) is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

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