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

Author: Luca Ventura
Project Coordinator: Pham Binh

INTRODUCTION

Frigid temperatures, dark winter days, a breathtakingly high cost of living: who would ever want to live in a place like that? As it turns out, the happiest people on planet Earth. Finland conquered United Nations World Happiness Report's top spot for the third year in a row, and not because there is something in the icy waters of this nation of just 5.5 million people. Finland is not the richest either among the 153 countries surveyed by Gallup World Poll: more than one dozen other countries beat the country's GDP per capita.

What is the reason then?

Quality of life—the UN report says—can be reliably assessed by a variety of well-being measures, with income being only of them and not necessarily the most important. The other five key variables are freedom to make life choices, trust towards social and political institutions, healthy life expectancy, level of available support from friends and relatives in times of need and generosity as a sense of positive community engagement. Finns—together with their Nordic neighbors—score exceptionally well in all these metrics.

Especially during these incredibly challenging times, happiness can be the tide that lifts all boats. Other people’s happiness is essential to our own, and the UN's report proves it time and again. In 2018, for example, it revealed that a higher degree of acceptance towards migrants increases happiness both among newcomers and the locally born. Last year, it showed that fewer social networks and more in-person social interactions greatly boost our individual sense of contentedness.

This year, the report focused on social, urban and natural environments and their links. On the social side, researchers say, people like living in communities and societies with less inequality of well-being, and where they feel they can rely on other people and public institutions. People in high-trust communities are much more resilient in the face of a whole range of challenges such as illness, discrimination, fear of danger and unemployment. The effects of misfortune and anxiety, the happiness experts indicate, are lessened by the strength and the warmth of the social fabric, especially for those most in need.

When it comes to urban life, the happiest cities are located in the happiest countries and city dwellers are on average happier than those in rural areas, especially in less happy nations. However, among the happiest nations this trend is sometimes reversed. What tips the scale? The difference, the report speculates, might reflect the extent to which people feel a sense of belonging to their local community. Furthermore, the benefits of living in an urban setting can be outweighed by higher costs of living, greater inequality, pollution and crime, as well as lower levels of social capital and lack of green space.

With respect to our natural environment, the takeaway is unequivocal: people are happier when they are in contact with nature, especially when they are accompanied by family or friends. The happiest countries are also those that prioritize sustainable development policies and do more to meet the Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations.


#10 | LUXEMBOURG

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Just four years ago, this land of castles, lakes and rolling hills occupied the 20th position in the happiness ranking. After years of moving up in the ranks, Luxembourg finally made it into the top 10. This small nation of about 600,000 people in the heart of Europe bears the distinction of being the only Grand Duchy in the world and is home to the restaurant with the largest wine list anywhere (2,200 different wines). However, these are not the reasons why Luxembourgers are so happy.  Scoring above average in social connections, subjective well-being and work-life balance, they have one of the highest voter turnouts in Europe (about 91% in recent elections), a rich and engaged cultural life and forests covering more than one-third of their country. While money cannot buy happiness, it certainly does not hurt that Luxembourg is the among the richest countries in the world where workers enjoy an average gross salary of almost 5,000 euros per month.


#9 | AUSTRIA

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Rising one spot from last year, Austria takes the place occupied last year by Australia (which slipped out of the top 10 happies countries for the first time since the UN began tracking the happiest countries in 2012). With low unemployment and inequality rates and high income per capita and life expectancy, this small heaven of just 8.7 million people is an ideal place to live. Austrians’ excellent quality of life goes hand in hand with their strong sense of community and civic duty: they have a high electoral participation rate of 75% and they believe that actively protecting the environment equals protecting their sense of happiness.


#8 | NEW ZEALAND

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Home to 4 million people (and 30 million sheep), for the second year running New Zealand maintains the eighth spot in the survey. Kiwis take their happiness seriously and are quick to spring into action when something threatens it. After a mass shooting last year left 51 people dead at two mosques in Christchurch, it only took the government six days to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons. A few months later, the center-left coalition led by prime minister Jacinda Ardern launched the first "Wellbeing Budget" in the history of policymaking, which aimed at ensuring that objectives such as improving housing, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing child poverty were considered as equally important as fiscal matters in budgetary decisions.


#7 | SWEDEN

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Sweden holds on to the seventh position in the ranking after climbing two spots in 2018.  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: the personal income tax rate is above 60%. On the other hand, fiscal revenues pay for universal health care, free university and a great number of social programs to help people learn new skills and take advantage of job opportunities.


#6 | THE NETHERLANDS

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Despite slipping one spot lower in this year’s ranking, people in the Netherlands still have few reasons to complain. The Dutch are more affluent, educated and freer 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 eradicated teenage angst: according to a research by the national statistics office CBS, 94% of youngsters 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 | NORWAY

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As one of the most prosperous countries in the world, Norway enjoys generous unemployment benefits and pensions in addition to excellent free healthcare and education. Norwegians think that democracy should enforce equality. The result is less income and gender disparity and more job satisfaction and trust in elected officials. While Norway lost its third place spot in the 2019 happiness ranking, it's doubtful anyone will be heartbroken knowing that only four countries in the world are ahead of it.


#4 | ICELAND

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Iceland routinely tops a wide variety of quality of life rankings. Chosen by both the World Economic Forum as the best country in the world for gender equality and the Institute for Economics and Peace as the most peaceful country for more than 10 years in a row, it is one of the most environmentally-friendly too. Iceland also has the highest per capita publication of books: 10% of its residents will write one in their lifetime. Iceland maintains for the second year in a row the fourth position in the happiness ranking. With its enchanting landscapes, low taxes and free healthcare and education, it is no surprise that it is so close to the top of the UN index.


#3 | SWITZERLAND

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After conquering the first spot in the 2015's World Happiness Report, Switzerland slowly started losing ground until, last year, it reached its lowest position in the ranking ever at sixth. While the study points out that people’s happiness levels tend to be closer to one another in the top-ranking countries compared to other nations in the list, this nation of just 8.4 million still managed to pull off a remarkable increase in its excellent scores. Jumping to third place in the ranking, Switzerland can boast postcard landscapes and clean air, state of the art infrastructure and education services, a favorable tax regime and a booming economy. A healthy diet and physical fitness are also emphasized: Switzerland boasts one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe at around 8%. Making chocolate and cheese and not war helps too: Switzerland is notoriously neutral and has not been involved in a war since 1847.


#2 | DENMARK

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Coming in runner-up for the second year in a row, Denmark topped the list in the first report, in 2012, and again in 2013 and 2016.  Nordic countries, the authors of the report have noted, share similar social and political models and values. That explains why all of them feature among the 10 happiest nations in the world and why they often swap places on the happiness podium. Danes have plenty of reasons to rejoice: 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.


#1 | FINLAND

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Finland vaulted from fifth place to the top of the ranking two years ago and seems determined to stay firmly put. This country of very happy people enjoys high standards of living, low corruption levels and more forest per square mile than any other European nation.  Finns are so proud of their way of living that last year the official national tourism agency launched the “Rent a Finn” global sweepstakes, in which the winners were paired with “happiness guides” from various parts of the country for a three-day summer vacation of fishing, hiking and berry-picking. While Finns have always been at the forefront of technological innovation, they know happiness cannot be found on a computer screen. ”Our secret is in our nature, very literally,” claimed the campaign website: “When others go to therapy, Finns put on a pair of rubber boots and head to the woods.”


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 78 Hong Kong SAR, China
2 Denmark 79 Croatia
3 Switzerland 80 Libya
4 Iceland 81 Mongolia
5 Norway 82 Malaysia
6 Netherlands 83 Vietnam
7 Sweden 84 Indonesia
8 New Zealand 85 Ivory Coast
9 Austria 86 Benin
10 Luxembourg 87 Maldives
11 Canada 88 Congo (Brazzaville)
12 Australia 89 Azerbaijan
13 United Kingdom 90 Macedonia
14 Israel 91 Ghana
15 Costa Rica 92 Nepal
16 Ireland 93 Turkey
17 Germany 94 China
18 United States 95 Turkmenistan
19 Czech Republic 96 Bulgaria
20 Belgium 97 Morocco
21 United Arab Emirates 98 Cameroon
22 Malta 99 Venezuela
23 France 100 Algeria
24 Mexico 101 Senegal
25 Taiwan Province of China 102 Guinea
26 Uruguay 103 Niger
27 Saudi Arabia 104 Laos
28 Spain 105 Albania
29 Guatemala 106 Cambodia
30 Italy 107 Bangladesh
31 Singapore 108 Gabon
32 Brazil 109 South Africa
33 Slovenia 110 Iraq
34 El Salvador 111 Lebanon
35 Kosovo 112 Burkina Faso
36 Panama 113 Gambia
37 Slovakia 114 Mali
38 Uzbekistan 115 Nigeria
39 Chile 116 Armenia
40 Bahrain 117 Georgia
41 Lithuania 118 Iran
42 Trinidad and Tobago 119 Jordan
43 Poland 120 Mozambique
44 Colombia 121 Kenya
45 Cyprus 122 Namibia
46 Nicaragua 123 Ukraine
47 Romania 124 Liberia
48 Kuwait 125 Palestinian Territories
49 Mauritius 126 Uganda
50 Kazakhstan 127 Chad
51 Estonia 128 Tunisia
52 Philippines 129 Mauritania
53 Hungary 130 Sri Lanka
54 Thailand 131 Congo (Kinshasa)
55 Argentina 132 Swaziland
56 Honduras 133 Myanmar
57 Latvia 134 Comoros
58 Ecuador 135 Togo
59 Portugal 136 Ethiopia
60 Jamaica 137 Madagascar
61 South Korea 138 Egypt
62 Japan 139 Sierra Leone
63 Peru 140 Burundi
64 Serbia 141 Zambia
65 Bolivia 142 Haiti
66 Pakistan 143 Lesotho
67 Paraguay 144 India
68 Dominican Republic 145 Malawi
69 Bosnia and Herzegoina 146 Yemen
70 Moldova 147 Botswana
71 Tajikistan 148 Tanzania
72 Montenegro 149 Central African Republic      
73 Russia 150 Rwanda
74 Kyrgyzstan 151 Zimbabwe
75 Belarus 152 South Sudan         
76 Northern Cyprus 153 Afghanistan         
77 Greece    
Source: The UN's 2020 World Happiness Report.

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