Americans need to focus on social priorities

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 155 countries according to happiness and well-being levels. Each year, researchers release the report around March 20, the International Day of Happiness.

This year, the report focuses on the social foundations of happiness for individuals and nations, which makes sense: according to the report, “happiness is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.” As it turns out, the United States is still figuring out how to be happy in many aspects.

What are the happiest countries in the world?

This year, though the numbers shifted a bit, the top 10 countries are the same. And it turns out Scandinavian countries are filled with consistently happy and content folks. Norway scored number one, followed by Denmark and Iceland. Rounding out the top six are Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands. Our northern neighbors in Canada hit number seven, while New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounded out the top 10  –with Australia and Sweden tied for the spot at number 9.

The United States dropped one spot from 13 to 14. In fact, we’ve never cracked the top 10. The lowest ranking country was the Central African Republic at number 155.


The top 25 happiest countries in the world

  1. Norway
  2. Denmark (This country is famous for happiness-inducing hygge. Check it out!)
  3. Iceland
  4. Switzerland
  5. Finland
  6. Netherlands
  7. Canada
  8. New Zealand
  9. Australia
  10. Sweden
  11. Israel
  12. Costa Rica
  13. Austria
  14. United States
  15. Ireland
  16. Germany
  17. Belgium
  18. Luxembourg
  19. United Kingdom
  20. Chile
  21. United Arab Emirates
  22. Brazil
  23. Czech Republic
  24. Argentina
  25. Mexico

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 and 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 also plays a major role in the happiness and misery levels of countries. 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.

The study found that in three Western countries – America, Australia and the UK – for example, a diagnosed mental illness plays a bigger role in happiness and misery levels than income, employment or physical illness.

The depression factor

Researchers found that if we could miraculously “cure” the 22 percent of Americans who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders in the U.S., without changing anything else, we could reduce the percentage of the American population’s misery by 2.35 percent. That’s almost half of the 5.6 percent of people who say they are living in misery. (This data also suggests it’s time for America to learn more about essential oils for anxiety to gain some natural relief.)

Because mental illness has a domino effect on many other social factors such as relationships and employment, it’s clear that better methods of diagnosing and treating mental health are crucial to happiness.

A previous happiness study found social connections are paramount to our happiness. The study author said the clearest message from this 75-year study is this: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” High-quality relationships are more important than the quantity of friends, too. This is a tenet of people from the blue zones, where some of the healthiest, longest-living people on the planet live.

Happiness Report findings: what’s going on in America?

Here in America, we’ve dropped from 13 in 2016 to 14 in the World Happiness Report. While a one-place drop might not seem so significant, the study’s authors point to the “paradox of the modern American economy.” While the income per person experienced about a 3-fold increase since 1960, our happiness levels haven’t; in fact, while our per capita GDP continues rising, our happiness levels are falling. So, what’s the deal?

We’ve been focusing on the wrong things, the study’s authors say. Improving our economy isn’t going to improve Americans’ happiness levels. Instead, it’s more about addressing the “multi-faceted social crisis” America is currently experiencing: widening levels of inequality, corruption, isolation from other countries and distrust.

Additionally, American mortality rates are rising for middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic men and women while, in Western Europe and Canada, these rates continue falling. Most disturbing is that the reasons for this increase in deaths is as much a social issue as a health crisis. The study points out that the mortalities are accounted for mainly by drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. Having stronger social programs in place could help the U.S. tackle these health issues. But currently, the researchers say, the U.S. is a country “looking for happiness in all the wrong places.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We’ve known for some time that what makes us happy and healthy are strong relationships with loved ones. We can take that a step further and offer social support to others when we can, whether it’s through volunteering time and money to causes close to our hearts or lending listening ear to a friend.

And if all else fails, you can always visit Norway!

This article originally appeared on and is republished here with permission.

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