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

Author: Luca Ventura
Project Coordinator: Pham Binh


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, that is where the happiest people on earth can be found. Finland conquered with a smile the top spot of the UN’s World Happiness Report (WHR) for the second year running, and not because there is something in the icy waters of this nation of just 5.5 million. Finland is not the richest either among the 156 countries surveyed by Gallup World Poll: more than a dozen other countries beat it out when it comes to GDP per capita. What is the reason then? 

Quality of life—the document says—can be reliably assessed by a variety of subjective well-being measures, with income being only of them and not the most important. The other five key variables taken into account 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.

Other people’s happiness is essential to our own. For example, last year’s report revealed that a higher degree of acceptance towards migrants increases happiness both among newcomers and the locally born. This time the report focused on how people communicate and interact with each other, and the takeaway is clear: fewer social networks and more real connections is the way to go. As the amount of time spent online increases, the report says, in-person social interactions decline in tandem with the individual sense of happiness. This is particularly true for adolescents, as they may be led to compare themselves to other personas online and become more prone to suffer from depression.

The point is well illustrated by the example of the United States. By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than at any point in history: unemployment and violent crime rates are down, living standards and income levels are up. However, these advancements have been offset by several trends adverse to subjective well-being: worsening health conditions for much of the population, declining social trust, reduced confidence in government. As a result, the U.S. has gradually slipped down the list: this year it came in 19th, its worst ranking ever, dropping one place from last year and five since 2017. Columbia economist and co-author of the report Jeffrey Sachs proposes a common driver of many of America’s social maladies: the U.S, he says, is suffering from an “epidemic of addictions.” Digital dependency is just one among them: gambling, shopping, consuming unhealthy foods, engaging in extreme sports or risky sexual behaviors are often tied to feelings of unhappiness and even clinical depression. Yet, Sachs complains, public health responses have been minimal: “If anything, the epidemics expose the remarkable power of corporate vested interests in American political life, power that is so great that it has forestalled any effective responses that would jeopardize corporate profits and control.”

This should concern everyone around the world: the issues that the U.S. is currently facing are, in fact, part of a global phenomenon that sees none of the world’s most powerful nations breaking the happiness ranking’s top 10. While economic prosperity may come at a cost, it certainly cannot be overlooked that those countries languishing at the bottom of the list such as South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan are desperately poor. Money can only fix some of their most pressing problems.


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Up two spots, Austria leaps into the top 10 of the happiest nations in the world taking the place occupied last year by Australia. With low unemployment and inequality rates, and a high income per capita and life expectancy, this small heaven of just 8.7 million is the 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.


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Although Canada slips two spots on the World Happiness Index, its performance in the six key metrics of well-being remains enviable.  People seem most likely to derive happiness from experiences that provide a sense of free choice, opportunities for social connection, and a chance to see how the help has made a difference, the report’s authors say singling out Canadians: “Consider their innovative Group of 5 program, whereby any five Canadians can privately sponsor a family of refugees. Because the sponsorship group provides help with everything from finding housing and a family doctor to getting the kids enrolled in school, there is ample opportunity to see how the family’s life is being transformed and to develop strong social relationships with them.” The result? Helping others makes us happy, but helping in ways that facilitate autonomy and social connection offers even greater benefits for both those who give help and those who receive it.


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Home to 4 million people (and 30 million sheep), New Zealand maintains last year’s spot in the survey. Kiwis take seriously their happiness: in May, the center-left coalition government led by Jacinda Ardern will launch 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. Tragically, the release of this year’s Happiness Report coincided with the mass shooting at two mosques that left 50 people dead in Christchurch. Six days after, New Zealand announced new guns laws banning military-style semi-automatic weapons. Why can’t other countries do the same?


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Sweden climbed two spots 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: the personal income tax rate is above 60%. 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.


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Dropping from the top spot in 2015 and the fifth last year, this nation of just 8.4 million 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. An 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.


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Dutch are happier than they were in 2018—which was already quite a lot. Gaining one spot in this year’s ranking, 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.


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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 for 10 years in a row, 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. Iceland maintains last year’s 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. 


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As one of the most prosperous countries in the world, Norway enjoys high unemployment benefits and pensions, as well as 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 Norwegians lose last year's second spot after ranking number one in 2017, it's doubtful anyone will be heartbroken about placing third in a world happiness survey.


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Denmark gains one position from last year. It 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.


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Finland vaulted from fifth place to the top of the ranking last year 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 Visit Finland, the official national tourism agency, decided to celebrate this second win in the UN ranking by launching the “Rent a Finn” global sweepstakes. The winners will be 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 forefront of technological innovation, they know happiness cannot be found on a computer screen. ”Our secret is in our nature, very literally,” claims the campaign website: “When others go to therapy, Finns put on a pair of rubber boots and head to the woods.”


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 Turkey
2 Denmark 80 Malaysia
3 Norway 81 Belarus
4 Iceland 82 Greece
5 Netherlands 83 Mongolia
6 Switzerland 84 North Macedonia
7 Sweden 85 Morocco
8 New Zealand 86 Kyrgyzstan
9 Canada 87 Turkmenistan
10 Austria 88 Algeria
11 Australia 89 Morocco
12 Costa Rica 90 Azerbaijan
13 Israel 91 Lebanon
14 Luxembourg 92 Indonesia
15 United Kingdom 93 China
16 Ireland 94 Vietnam
17 Germany 95 Bhutan
18 Belgium 96 Cameroon
19 United States 97 Bulgaria
20 Czech Republic 98 Ghana
21 United Arab Emirates 99 Ivory Coast
22 Malta 100 Nepal
23 Mexico 101 Jordan
24 France 102 Benin
25 Taiwan Province of China 103 Congo
26 Chile 104 Gabon
27 Guatemala 105 Laos
28 Saudi Arabia 106 South Africa
29 Qatar 107 Albania
30 Spain 108 Venezuela
31 Panama 109 Cambodia
32 Brazil 110 Palestinian Territories
33 Uruguay 111 Senegal
34 Singapore 112 Somalia
35 El Salvador 113 Namibia
36 Italy 114 Niger
37 Bahrain 115 Burkina Faso
38 Slovakia 116 Armenia
39 Trinidad and Tobago 117 Iran
40 Poland 118 Guinea
41 Uzbekistan 119 Georgia
42 Lithuania 120 Gambia
43 Colombia 121 Kenya
44 Slovenia 122 Mauritania
45 Nicaragua 123 Mozambique
46 Kosovo 124 Tunisia
47 Argentina 125 Bangladesh
48 Romania 126 Iraq
49 Cyprus 127 Congo
50 Ecuador 128 Mali
51 Kuwait 129 Sierra Leone
52 Thailand 130 Sri Lanka
53 Latvia 131 Myanmar
54 South Korea 132 Chad
55 Estonia 133 Ukraine
56 Jamaica 134 Ethiopia
57 Mauritius 135 Swaziland
58 Japan 136 Uganda
59 Honduras 137 Egypt
60 Kazakhstan 138 Ukraine
61 Cyprus 139 Togo
62 Bolivia 140 India
63 Hungary 141 Liberia
64 North Cyprus 142 Comoros
65 Peru 143 Madagascar
66 Portugal 144 Lesotho
67 Pakistan 145 Burundi
68 Russia 146 Zimbabwe
69 Philippines 147 Haiti
70 Serbia 148 Botswana
71 Moldova 149 Syria
72 Libya 150 Malawi
73 Montenegro 151 Yemen
74 Tajikistan 152 Rwanda
75 Croatia 153 Tanzania
76 Hong Kong SAR, China 154 Afghanistan
77 Dominican Republic 155 Central African Republic
78 Bosnia and Herzegovina 156 South Sudan
Source: The UN's 2019 World Happiness Report.

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