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World’s Happiest Countries Index Includes Surprises

Leon Kaye | Monday August 9th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Money can buy happiness, but that is often not enough, as a recent Gallup poll indicates.  As more economists, researchers, and even global leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy suggest, gross domestic product (GDP) is not sufficient for measuring economic health.  While the measurement of GDP has its value and will never go away, experts have suggested alternate metrics like a “triple top line” or a “gross national happiness” metric.

Polls always carry a degree of suspicion with them, either because of an evaluation of its sampling data or the way in which questions are framed.  But the Gallup survey is significant for the amount of time and follow up the organization had invested in this survey, which took over four years.  While many wealthy western nations make the list, some surprises appear among the top 20 countries.

Not surprisingly, 5 wealthy European countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands) round out the top five.  At least two-thirds of the respondents in these nations reported that they were thriving:  not just economically, but in how they felt about their daily life.  Researchers asked questions about their overall satisfaction, then quizzed them on issues including how well-rested they felt, respected, free of pain, and intellectually engaged.  True, having a certain of level of comfort adds to one’s well-being; but emotional and social needs have to be met as well.  For those on the left who believe Northern Europeans are happy because of social welfare, there remains the caveat that these countries’ governments are slowly drifting away from the welfare state.  They are also home to enormous multinationals, including Philips, Shell, Nokia, IKEA, and Maersk, so capitalism is very much alive and well.

Then you have #6, Costa Rica, which at first appears random.  The country has successfully transitioned from an economy dependent on agriculture to one based on tourism and services, but its people are also subjected to inflationary pressures due to wealthier retirees moving from abroad.  Nevertheless, Costa Rica’s ratio of people who believe they are thriving versus those who are struggling leave them only slightly behind their European cousins, while edging them slightly ahead of Canada and New Zealand.  Costa Rica’s society has a reputation as one enjoying tightly-knit social and family networks.  Meanwhile the United States, at #14, finds itself in the top 10% of all 155 nations surveyed.

Some surprises exist:  France and Spain are at #43 and #45, with the Dominican Republic wedged between them.  Turkmenistan is at #18, despite high unemployment, a dubious human rights record, and an economy that relies mostly on natural gas and cotton.  But again, the nature of human relationships has a role.  After all Venezuela, despite a doddering leader, sinking economy, and restless population ranks fairly high, as do Ireland and Iceland, which have experienced devastating volatility over the past couple years.  The UAE rounds up the top 20, though the impending ban on smartphones may knock the Emirates down a notch!

Keep in mind that the survey started in 2005, before financial meltdowns and energy price volatility.  Cultural differences come into play—assumptions ones make about one’s home country do not necessarily apply abroad or even across the border.  And more work needs to be done:  issues like transparency, social justice, and a quality of life—socially and the environment—measure satisfaction that GDP alone cannot quantify.  Quantification of all these factors, of course, are tricky.

In the meantime, for those who worry about China’s impending domination, the world’s most populous country lands at #125.

Take a look at the list and give us your reaction.  Is your country listed way to high or too low, or are there other reasons that should be taken into account?


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Categorized: Economics|

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  • P Hoath

    I note that the top 5 countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands) are all countries where the majority of the population are atheist.

    • Håkan Granberg

      I note that they are countries with a strong Protestant tradition

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