Japan ranked 53rd out of 156 countries in a recent global ranking of happiness, the World Happiness Report. This disappointing showing may be as strong an indicator of the realities of life in Japan as any economic measure could provide. The ranking of happiness around the world took into account objective data, such as gross domestic product per capita, together with self-reported evaluations of personal happiness. The results, though, revealed once again that quality of life remains relatively low in Japan.

Of the 156 countries surveyed, Denmark and Switzerland came in numbers one and two, with Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden rounding out the rest of the top 10. The least happy countries were those torn by war and ravaged by poverty, such as Syria, Togo, Afghanistan and most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Greece, with its economic and migrant crises, had the largest drop in happiness. But Japan also declined in happiness, coming in 107th in measures of relative decline in happiness compared to 10 years ago. About half of countries became relatively happier over that same time period.

The intention of the report is to find ways of making societies more socially viable and mentally healthier. The report considered many different factors such as GDP per capita, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), health and life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption and contrasts with an imagined dystopian society. Efficiency in daily life and perceived positions of relative wellbeing were noted as important influences on personal evaluations of happiness.

Ironically, perhaps, in Japan, levels of happiness surged after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. At that time, support for the survivors and pride in Japan led to greater feelings of happiness nationwide. Acts of charity and generosity during that time contributed to a feeling of wellbeing but it faded as the disaster receded from attention. However, the report noted that Japan’s sense that the social fabric is strong contributed to higher levels of happiness. But once the spirit of generosity and sense of connection fell, and Japan returned to a more self-centered, hierarchical and consumerist view of their life, happiness levels fell.

Several factors combine to explain why Japanese are less happy than their relatively high levels of GDP and health would suggest. Perceived inequality is strongly correlated with unhappiness. The sense of social support and the perceived freedom to make one’s own life choices were not as large as in many other countries, contributing to lower level of happiness. Isolation, inequality and social pressure to act in a manner that meets others’ expectations remain factors that affect Japanese perceptions of their own happiness.

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