Money cannot buy happiness—at least six other factors are critical for nations to have happy people.

Author: Luca Ventura
Project Coordinator: B Pham

INTRODUCTION

Money alone can't make you happy—the strength of social support networks, healthy life expectancy, individual freedom, philanthropy and perceived absence of corruption in government and business matter too. Alongside income, these are the six key indicators that support well-being according to the UN's 2018 World Happiness Report (WHR), a landmark survey aimed at improving policymakers' awareness and increasing public happiness.

The 2018 report ranked 156 countries surveyed by the Gallup World Poll. A new nation—Finland—scored the highest, but the top 10 positions are held by the same countries as in the past two years (although with some swapping places). In addition, this year's report evaluated the level of happiness of immigrants in 117 countries—an important measure, the report’s authors say, as a higher degree of acceptance towards migrants is shown to increase the happiness of both newcomers and the locally born. It is not by chance that the 10 happiest countries have foreign-born population shares averaging 17.2%, about double the world average.

Does that mean that these nations have discovered a magical formula for happiness? Perhaps. However, while there is much to learn from the highest-ranking countries in the list, hard lessons can be gauged also from those that experienced the biggest drops. The UN report devotes a special chapter to why the US continues to slip downward despite having among the highest income per capita. This year the world’s largest economy is in 18th place, five positions lower compared to 2016, as it grapples with crises of obesity, substance abuse and depression. 

It is Venezuela, however, that recorded the biggest relative fall in happiness, surpassing even war-ravaged Syria: the country's difficult political, social and economic situation is particularly reflected in people’s evaluation of subjective well-being, which recorded a sharp reduction. The report, however, also notes that Latin American nations generally rank higher than their average per capita income would suggest, especially in contrast to many fast-growing Asian countries. Latin America suffers from unequal distribution of income and high corruption and crime rates, yet it has consistently scored relatively well in the happiness report. The authors of the survey attributed this to “the abundance of family warmth and other supportive social relationships frequently sidelined in favor of an emphasis on income measures in the development discourse”.

Make no mistake: countries at the bottom of the list such as Burundi or the Central African Republic are desperately poor. But money isn't everything.


#10 | AUSTRALIA

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Down one place from last year, Australians are slightly unhappier than they were in 2017, but still among the most content people in the world. With Australia's high wages, employment rate, life expectancy, and natural beauty this shouldn't come as a surprise. It is altruism, however, that helps them reach such heights in the happiness charts: the land down under is one the most-accepting for migrants, with a foreign-born share of its population of 28%, the highest in the top 10. And not just that: around 40% of Australians are registered as volunteers. A record hard to beat.


#9 | SWEDEN

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Sweden climbed a spot up from last year.  Sweden has consistently ranked high in the list thanks to its affluence, strong social support networks and perceived honesty and accountability of its institutions. The Scandinavian country also boasts an enviable work-life balance: it offers the longest paid vacation period compared to any other country in the world—25 days—while new parents can take up 480 days during which they receive 80% of their salary. One downside? Taxes are high: this year, the personal income tax rate was registered at 61.85%. Fiscal revenues, however, are used for universal health care, free university and a great number of social programs to help people learn new skills and take advantage of jobs opportunities.


#8 | NEW ZEALAND

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Home to 4 million people (and 30 million sheep), New Zealand dropped five places in the survey. This lapse is likely to not last long: Kiwis take seriously their happiness. The new center-left coalition government is set to launch soon the first "Wellbeing Budget" in the history of policymaking, which is aimed at ensuring that objectives such as improving housing, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing child poverty are considered alongside fiscal matters in budgetary decisions. Shouldn't these be priorities for all nations?


#7 | CANADA

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Maintaining its position at 7th place from last year, Canada fared even better in the ranking of  the most-accepting countries for migrants, where it comes in fourth place. In general, the report's authors say, immigrants are about as happy as the people born locally, with the difference being under 0.1 point out of 10 (their degree of happiness is affected not just by how happy and welcoming are the locals, but also on the level of happiness of where they emigrated from). "Immigrant happiness, like that of the locally born depends on a range of features of the social fabric, extending far beyond the higher incomes traditionally thought to inspire and reward migration," the report reads: "Once the overall quality of life is taken into account, there is no happiness gain from moving to a higher income country". 


#6 | THE NETHERLANDS

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In sixth place, the Dutch are as happy as they were in 2017—which is quite a lot. Scoring high in all six measures of happiness, people in the Netherlands are more affluent, educated and free to make their own life choices than at any point in their country’s history. They are so content with their way of living that they even managed to eradicate teenage angst: according to a research by the national statistics office CBS, 94% of youngster between the age of 12 and 18 claim to be very happy with their lives. But isn't the whole country at constant risk of being swallowed up by rising seas because it is below sea level? Not at all—while rising sea levels caused by global warming are certainly a concern, only 26% of the land and 21% of the population are located below sea level. In addition, the country is protected from flooding and storm surges by an extensive and sophisticated series of walls, dikes, dams, floodgates, drainage ditches, canals, and pumping stations.


#5 | SWITZERLAND

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Dropping from the top spot in 2015 and the fourth in the last two years, Switzerland is still a pretty sweet place to call home. And not just for its postcard landscapes and clean air: the Swiss enjoy state of the art infrastructure and education services, a favorable tax regime and a booming economy. This nation of just 8.4 million is also one of the top countries in the world in terms of life expectancy: in fourth position after Japan, Iceland and Italy, its citizens live on average until age 73, four more years than Americans.


#4 | ICELAND

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Iceland routinely tops a wide variety of quality of life rankings. Chosen by the World Economic Forum as the best country in the world for gender equality and by the Global Peace Index as the most peaceful in 2018, it is one of the most environmentally-friendly too. Iceland have also the highest per capita publication of books: 10% of its residents will write one in their lifetime, which must be something that makes them really happy. With its enchanting landscapes, low taxes and free healthcare and education, it is no surprise that Iceland is so close to the top of the UN index.  


#3 | DENMARK

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Denmark has been sliding in the ranking from first in 2016 to second in 2017, and third this year. Among nations so closely grouped in average scores, the authors of the report note, it is something to be expected. And Danes, certainly, have little reason to complain: their country scores high when it comes to work-life balance, environment and healthcare. It also boasts a 100% literacy rate and one of the smallest wealth gaps in the world.  On top of that, Denmark offers additional proof that those migrants who move to less happy countries lose, while those who move to happier countries gain: its foreign-born citizens, second in the special UN ranking, are even happier than the born locally.
 


#2 | NORWAY

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As one of the most prosperous countries in the world, Norway enjoys quality free healthcare and education, high life expectancy and small income gap. If these are all familiar attributes, it is because Nordic countries share similar social and political models and values. As a result, all of them feature among the 10 happiest nations in the world. While Norwegians lose last year's top spot, it's doubtful anyone will be torn about placing second in a happiness survey.


#1 | FINLAND

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Finland vaults from fifth place to the top of the rankings this year. Its 5.5 million residents enjoy high standards of living, low corruption levels and more forest per square mile than any European country. Finland not only has the happiest people, but it is home to the world’s happiest immigrants. Interestingly, the country's average per capita income ranks only in the mid-20s worldwide, much lower than that of other Nordic countries or the US. The Finns, the UN report points out, really know how to get the most happiness out of their comparatively modest wealth.


WORLD'S HAPPIEST COUNTRIES

156 countries ranked by per capita income, social support networks, healthy life expectancy, individual freedom, philanthropy, and the absence of corruption in government and business
1 Finland 79 Greece
2 Norway 80 Tajikistan
3 Denmark 81 Montenegro
4 Iceland 82 Croatia
5 Switzerland 83 Dominican Republic
6 Netherlands 84 Algeria
7 Canada 85 Morocco
8 New Zealand 86 China
9 Sweden 87 Azerbaijan
10 Australia 88 Lebanon
11 Israel 89 Macedonia
12 Austria 90 Jordan
13 Costa Rica 91 Nigeria
14 Ireland 92 Kyrgyzstan
15 Germany 93 Bosnia and Herzegovina
16 Belgium 94 Mongolia
17 Luxembourg 95 Vietnam
18 United States 96 Indonesia
19 United Kingdom 97 Bhutan
20 United Arab Emirates 98 Somalia
21 Czech Republic 99 Cameroon
22 Malta 100 Bulgaria
23 France 101 Nepal
24 Mexico 102 Venezuela
25 Chile 103 Gabon
26 Taiwan Province of China 104 Palestinian Territories
27 Panama 105 South Africa
28 Brazil 106 Iran
29 Argentina 107 Ivory Coast
30 Guatemala 108 Ghana
31 Uruguay 109 Senegal
32 Qatar 110 Laos
33 Saudi Arabia 111 Tunisia
34 Singapore 112 Albania
35 Malaysia 113 Sierra Leone
36 Spain 114 Congo (Brazzaville)
37 Colombia 115 Bangladesh
38 Trinidad & Tobago 116 Sri Lanka
39 Slovakia 117 Iraq
40 El Salvador 118 Mali
41 Nicaragua 119 Nambia
42 Poland 120 Cambodia
43 Bahrain 121 Burkina Faso
44 Uzbekistan 122 Egypt
45 Kuwait 123 Mozambique
46 Thailand 124 Kenya
47 Italy 125 Zambia
48 Ecuador 126 Mauritania
49 Belize 127 Ethiopia
50 Lithuania 128 Georgia
51 Slovenia 129 Armenia
52 Romania 130 Myanmar
53 Latvia 131 Chad
54 Japan 132 Congo (Kinshasa)
55 Mauritius 133 India
56 Jamaica 134 Niger
57 South Korea 135 Uganda
58 Northern Cyprus 136 Benin
59 Russia 137 Sudan
60 Kazakhstan 138 Ukraine
61 Cyprus 139 Togo
62 Bolivia 140 Guinea
63 Estonia 141 Lesotho
64 Paraguay 142 Angola
65 Peru 143 Madagascar
66 Kosovo 144 Zimbabwe
67 Moldova 145 Afghanistan
68 Turkmenistan 146 Botswana
69 Hungary 147 Malawi
70 Lybia 148 Haiti
71 Philippines 149 Liberia
72 Honduras 150 Seria
73 Belarus 151 Rwanda
74 Turkey 152 Yemen
75 Pakistan 153 Tanzania
76 Hong Kong SAR, China 154 South Sudan
77 Portugal 155 Central African Republic
78 Serbia 156 Burundi
Source: The UN's 2018 World Happiness Report.

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