Posted by: joha5 | July 19, 2010

The World’s Happiest Countries & the Equitability of Happiness

I’m a pretty happy person.  I live in a great area.  I have great friends.  I am – supposedly – upwardly mobile and well-educated.  Yet, according to a new and extensively researched report that is released once a year by Forbes, my level’s of happiness don’t compare to that of Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden.  They don’t even compare to Panama, Canada, or Costa Rica.  Perhaps even more counterintuitive, my happiness level’s don’t even compare to that of Botswana, Libya, and Malawi. 


We are almost as happy as all of these people...just not quite. We are probably collectively as happy as the woman in the grey suit on the left side of the picture.

But how can this be?  Quantifying something as intrinsic and ethereal as ‘happiness’ is extremely difficult to do and it is clear – at least to me – that you will never get an exact number or figure to detail somebody’s level of happiness.  The researchers spoke to hundreds of thousands of people in 155 countries around the world.  The respondents were asked to give a ‘life evaluation score’ between 1 and 10 to different areas and aspects of their lives.  They were also asked how they felt the previous day, week, and year, and those scores allowed the researchers to come up with a list of the people who were happiest with their daily experiences.  People who reported high scores were considered ‘thriving’ and the percentage of thriving individuals in each country determined the rankings.   Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but reasonable, sensible, and even logical to certain degrees.

So where is the United States (or England) on this list?  Well, they aren’t in the top 10.  They aren’t even in the top 20.  Both countries just barely crack the top 30.  That is still excellent news considering there are 196 sovereign nations in the world and even better if you consider the 227 countries for which the CIA collects statistics.  We are in the top 15% of the happiest countries in the world and that is exceptional if not surprising.  The United States is rich in spirit, wealth, and culture so why is it that we are lower than close to 30 other countries? 

If I had to answer that question I would answer it in this way:  I don’t know.  However, as an enterprising and critical thinker – or so I tell myself – I’d like to delve a little deeper.  Here are the list of the top 3 happiest countries from the four major areas – Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa – and please note that all of these countries rate higher than the United States (and England) does. 

Europe: 1) Denmark     2) Finland     3) Norway

The Americas: 1) Costa Rica     2) Canada     3) Panama

Asia: 1) New Zealand     2) Israel     3) Australia

Africa: 1) Malawi     2) Libya     3) Botswana

There you have it.  Do any of those sound about right or make sense to you?  Based purely on finances I can see that about half make sense and half don’t.  So what does this tell me?  This tells me that money can buy some form of happiness – but not all of it.  And this I think is important when it comes to looking at happiness from an American perspective. 

I think it would be unneccessary to describe the capitalist and consumerist nature of the United States because I think it is clear that this is how we are as a people.  And at the very least – even if you disagree about this assertion – it is clear that we certainly consume more than countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Botswana, Libya, and Malawi.  And those basically make up half of the list already! 

But there’s more to happiness than riches. The study demonstrated that while income undoubtedly influenced happiness, it did so for a particular kind of well-being — the kind one feels when reflecting on his or her own successes and prospects for the future. Day-to-day happiness is more likely to be associated with how well one’s psychological and social needs are being met, and that’s harder to achieve with a paycheck.

This is what Botswana, Libya, and Malawi make of using money to try and buy happiness!

Many of the poorer countries on the list were able to beat out richer countries like the United States and that is because social networks in many of these nations are tight and allow individuals to feel happy with their lot regardless of financial success.  From an anthropological perspective, we are happier with our future and our prospects but from an immediate perspective there is a lot that we don’t have and this is perhaps specifically because we all have so much.  We have cars and homes, we are distracted by our cell phones and internet, we get dissuaded by traffic and weather, and we pacify our senses with film and television.  These things are systemic in the society that we have constructed.  Conversely, the lack of access to the things that we have in our society is also systemic in these poorer societies and these factors contribute to the structure of society which – over time – means that citizens of these nations put a higher value on relationships.

Inhabitants of some – but not all – rich countries are bound to feel happier in many ways yet this form of happiness is elusive to define and it is clear that money isn’t the only thing that influences it.  Another side of happiness is how you experience and process things that occur in your life on a daily basis.  What this study demonstrates to me is that money can indeed buy you happiness.  The next question to ask would naturally be ‘how happy will you be if all you have is money and nothing else’?  Personally, I don’t know the answer.  But I know some people who do.  Just ask Denmark, Panama, Costa Rica, Botswana, Libya, or Malawi and we just might learn something from them.



  1. When i visit a blog, chances are that i get disappointed.On the other hand,I have to say that you have done a good job here.

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