There can be few things less useful than a world map of happiness. If you live in one of the unhappy places, there is little chance that you will be able to move to one of the happy ones — and anyway, there’s no way of knowing whether immigrants are happy there. Besides, your personal capacity for happiness is largely hard-wired by your genetic heritage and early childhood experiences.
But there are always under-employed sociologists, psychologists and economists looking for something new to research. There is also a permanent over-supply of journalists at their wits’ end for something to write about. Despite Israel’s gallant effort to fill the whole news cycle single-handedly, this has been a slow week for news, so let us consider the global distribution of happiness (or “subjective well-being,” as the social psychologists call it).
The Satisfaction with Life Index, to give the world happiness map its proper name, does not measure objective conditions like gross domestic product per capita or average life expectancy. You can be dirt poor, like Bhutan, and still rank high in happiness. You can also be relatively prosperous but miserable, like Latvians, who are less happy than Ethiopians or Palestinians.
The old Human Development Index, dating back to 1990, tells us who should be happy, if income, life span and educational level were really the main determinants of happiness. Unsurprisingly, this yields a list that ranks countries pretty much in strict order of GDP per capita.
For those who care about the environment, there’s the Happy Planet Index, which measures “the production of human well-being (not necessarily material goods) per unit of extraction of or imposition upon nature.” In other words, if your well-being comes at a high environmental cost, you drop down the list.
On this index, launched in 2006, the developed countries do not do so well, for their prosperity comes at a high environmental cost: the United States drops from 13 on the Human Development Index to 150 on the Happy Planet Index. But that index is really measuring the “happiness” of the ecosphere, as if the planet itself were capable of happiness.
Adrian White’s Satisfaction with Life Index, however, is focused on what people actually feel about their lives — and he cunningly avoided the nuisance of sending out 80,000 questionnaires to people all over the world. White, a social psychologist, at the University of Leicester, did a “meta-analysis” of other global surveys, by the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and half a dozen other organizations, and extracted the data for his own index.
They were the ones who actually sent out the 80,000 questionnaires, and White did not compose their questions himself. So you may want to take his results with a grain of salt — but they are interesting nevertheless. The most striking result is that all of the top 20 countries in terms of happiness are relatively small: the biggest, at No. 10, is Canada, which has only 33 million people. All the Scandinavian countries are there, of course, but so are Antigua, Bhutan, Costa Rica and the Seychelles. All 20 are democracies.
The saddest countries on the list, Nos. 176, 177 and 178, are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Burundi. Indeed, there’s not a single country in Africa that counts as happy. Russia and the other countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union are all mired in the Slough of Despond. Japan, surprisingly, ties with Yemen, an almost-failed state, in the happiness stakes.
Among the big developed countries, the United States places just outside the top 20 at No. 23, well ahead of other rich countries like Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy and France. Bangladeshis are happier than Indians and much happier than Pakistanis. Malaysians are the happiest people in Asia, Venezuelans are the happiest people in South America, and the Gulf states from Oman to Kuwait are the happiest countries in the Middle East.
White did his major work in 2007, so some of the rankings may have changed since then. Icelanders, for example, may be pretty unhappy since their banks and their currency collapsed. Sri Lankans may be cheering up now that their long civil war is over. Iranians were not happy even before last year’s upheavals, but they are probably even less so now.
Health and wealth make some difference in how happy countries are, but they are certainly not decisive, and some other measures that are normally thought to matter don’t seem to count at all. The United States, for example, has the greatest inequality of income among the big developed countries, but Americans are happy people — maybe because their national mythology tells them that they all have “equality of opportunity.”
The size of government doesn’t make much difference either, so long as it is competent. Denmark is the classic welfare state, with the government spending 52 percent of GDP, while the Swiss government only spends 33 percent of national income. Yet they are virtually tied for first place in the happiness index.
Never mind. If you think statistics like these can tell you anything useful that direct observation and common sense won’t, you’re crazy. Still, if that makes you happy. . . .
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.