Global Ranking Of Happiness Has Happy News For Norway And Nicaragua

Mar 20, 2017

Norway can be frigid. And the winters bring lots of darkness. But it's the happiest nation in world, according to the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Denmark comes in at #2, followed by Iceland and Switzerland. Finland takes 5th place. And, it turns out, these countries have more in common than a tolerance for cold.

Well-being is shaped by a range of factors. "All of the top countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance," according to the report.

The second tier of the top ten includes the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden (the last two tied for 9th position).

The developing world has its share of unhappy countries. According to the report, some of the unhappiest nations in the world are Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.

But there are encouraging signs in low- and middle-income countries. Cameroon, Latvia, Nicaragua and Sierra Leone, for example, are all on the list of the 20 countries reporting the highest gains in happiness.

Meanwhile, happiness in the U.S. has slipped a bit, according to the report. "The reasons are declining social support" as well as a decline in trust — and an increased sense of corruption, write the co-editors in a summary report. In 2015, the U.S. ranked 13th. This year, it slipped to 14th.

The report draws on survey data from 155 countries. "We ask people to think of their lives as a whole," explains report co-editor John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia who studies well-being and comparative economic growth. Each year, researchers survey 1,000 people in each country.

Some questions are quite simple, such as: In times of trouble, do you have family and/or friends to count on? Other questions measure people's perceived levels of freedom, generosity and trust — both in each other and in their governments and businesses.

The Nordic countries have among the most generous social safety nets. "Access to higher education, access to high-quality health services are part of it, explains Jon-Åge Øyslebø, minister of communications, cultural affairs and education at the Norwegian Embassy. (We reached out to him before he had heard about the top spot his country had earned in the new report.)

There are also generous social support programs. For instance, new parents in Norway are eligible for nearly a year of leave with pay. "Norway is a relatively egalitarian society with regard to both to income differences and gender," Øyslebø told us. He says he thinks this is an important part of the happiness equation.

Another factor, of course, is the economy. Overall, Norway is pretty wealthy, in part due to the natural resource of oil. But even though oil prices have declined, Norwegian level of happiness has risen, at least according to the report.

"Absolutely there's more to it than money," Øyslebø says. Many studies have shown that after people's basic needs are met, additional income is not necessarily a path to happiness.

So what's the value of these global ranking? After all, the survey data that they're based on are pretty crude measures. And at any given time, in any nation, some people are suffering while others thrive.

"The reason for taking this [report] seriously," co-editor John Helliwell told us, is that it offers an alternative to thinking of "income as the measure of progress."

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Today is the International Day of Happiness. The United Nations had an event to mark the occasion, and it released the 2017 World Happiness report. Now, the idea of ranking countries by their levels of happiness might seem a bit weird. Surely there are always some people who are miserable while others are thriving. NPR's Allison Aubrey investigates.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Every year, researchers ask people in 155 countries to evaluate their lives. They ask a range of questions aimed at understanding key factors that contribute to a happy life. For example...

JOHN HELLIWELL: It's a simple question - yes or no. In times of trouble, do you have family or friends to count on?

AUBREY: He says the other questions look at health, education, income, as well as levels of freedom and trust in government. And who comes out on top?

HELLIWELL: The top country this year is Norway, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland.

AUBREY: So what makes a country happy? I was curious, so I made a phone call.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Norwegian Embassy. Good afternoon.

AUBREY: I was put through to Jon Oyslebo. He's the minister of cultural affairs. And why does he think Norwegians top the list?

JON OYSLEBO: I'm quite sure that access to free higher education, access to high-quality health services would be part of it.

AUBREY: There's also generous social support programs. For instance, new parents are entitled to almost a year of leave with pay. And the physical surroundings are beautiful, too.

OYSLEBO: Space, fresh air (laughter). I think Norwegians have many, many reasons to be satisfied.

AUBREY: Another factor of course is the economy. Overall, Norway is a pretty wealthy country in part due to oil. But even though oil prices have declined, Norwegians' level of happiness has risen.

OYSLEBO: Absolutely there is more to it than money.

AUBREY: At a time when income inequality has expanded in many countries, Norway has no big gap between rich and poor. And there's no big gender gap either.

TAL BEN-SHAHAR: I think the interesting thing about the happiness index is what we can learn from it and, more importantly, what we can apply.

AUBREY: That's Tal Ben-Shahar. For years he taught a course on the science of happiness at Harvard. This year, the U.S. is ranked 14th on the global happiness index, slipping one spot from last year. Ben-Shahar says this isn't a big deal. After all, the survey relies on blunt measures. But he says the divisiveness created by our political climate seemed to play a role.

BEN-SHAHAR: There is less trust today in the political system in the United States. There is distrust among people because - a feeling of us versus them.

AUBREY: He says there's lots of science to show that the loss of trust can erode people's sense of well-being.

BEN-SHAHAR: One of the most important determinants of happiness is trust.

AUBREY: And without a sense of shared values, it can be a challenge to rebuild that trust. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.


PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) It might seem crazy what I'm about to say. Sunshine - she's here. You can take a break. I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space - with the air like I don't care, baby, by the way because I'm happy. Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Clap along if you feel like... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.