The happiest people in the world reside in northern Europe, according to the second annual 156-nation survey report released September 9, 2013 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The Report calls on policy makers throughout the world to make "happiness" ("what really matters to people as they characterize their well-being") a key measure and target of development.
Denmark tops the list of the happiest nations, overthrowing last year's winner, Iceland, followed by Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Canada takes sixth place and the US is behind Mexico at 17th, although an improvement from last year's 23rd place finish. Britain holds 22nd place, Russia 68, China 93, and Iraq 105. War-torn Syria comes in at an unsurprising 148th place. The lowest ranked country is Togo at 156th after Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Benin.
The rankings are based on individuals' evaluations of their lives, collected in the Gallup World Poll between 2010 and 2012. GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity were among the evaluation criteria. Happiness, according to the Report, helps people live longer, have more productive lives, earn higher wages, and be better citizens in general. Go to photos of global happiness hot spots .
Some of the interesting findings in the 2013 report:
1. Happier countries tend to be richer countries. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, freedom from corruption and the degree of personal freedom.
2. Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet less than a third of the mentally ill get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.
3. Nice weather does not correlate with happiness. Except for Australia (coming in at number 10), all of the world's top-ten happiest countries have long, bleak winters. Iceland (9th) barely sees the sun while Mauritius, a favorite honeymoon and holiday destination for the happy folk of northern Europe, is at 67th, and Jamaica in the sunny Caribbean languishes in 75th place.
4. Happy people tend to ride bicycles by choice. Denmark and the Netherlands (the happiest and the fourth-happiest) are renowned for being the world's most bicycle-friendly nations; the other most-happy countries are also famous for being bicycle friendly.
True, much of the developing world gets about by bicycle, as does economic powerhouse China, but not, it seems, because they want to.
The UN's focus on "happiness" interestingly coincides with the interest taken by many of the world's global tech companies such as Google and more than 20 other US-based technology companies in the Silicon Valley on the teachings of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The companies are seeking to understand from the master how they can help their organizations become more compassionate and effective. In an interview with the Guardian, Thich remarked: "You have to consider your idea of happiness. You think it is possible only if you win, if you are on the top. But it is not necessarily like that, because even if you are successful in making more money, you still suffer....Many of us think you can only be happy when you leave other people behind; you are number one. You do not need to be number one to be happy."
On an individual level, stories abound about people at the top of their professions choosing happiness over their regular career. One recent example is a judge in New Jersey who went with his heart and happiness - in being a stand-up comic- when he was forced to make a choice between dropping his moonlighting job and the judgeship.
Will the world and its political leaders and mega corporations pick up on such trends to guide them in setting long-term policies? Will there be more in-depth local and national studies to help us understand better how to sustain long-term happiness and well-being? At a time of widening divide between the have and the have nots, widening social exclusion, and mental health issues affecting happiness all over the world, is there a reason to wait?