What makes a country happy? Could this be the most un-shocking study ever?

Looking at the UN Happiness Report, maybe governments’ fixation with GDP is justified

Summer solstice in Helsinki, Finland – the happiest country, according to the UN’s latest happiness report, for the second year running. Photograph: Heikki Saukkomaa via Reuters

Money can't buy you happiness. How many times was that drilled into you as a child? But have a look at the latest UN Happiness Report. The top 20 countries, led by the Nordics and including Switzerland, Austria, Canada and the US, are almost indistinguishable from the top 20 richest countries. It reads like a Sunday Times rich list, albeit for countries, but we're meant to be measuring happiness.

By the same token, the bottom 20, anchored by Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, are unequivocally the poorest of the poor, the have-nots.

The scores are based on individuals’ assessments of their own lives on a “ladder” scale ranging from 0 to 10, where 0 means the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life.

Researchers then tried to explain the differences using variables such as gross domestic product (GDP) per person, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption, but these did not contribute to the overall happiness ranking.


You might quibble that Scandinavia has the juice on the rest of us, presumably because of their A-rated public services, and perhaps that is the dividing line between rich countries, but only at the upper echelons.

And the small rating differences between top-ranked countries underscores this. Top-ranked Finland, Denmark and Norway scored themselves a seven out of 10 in terms of overall happiness, but so did Canada (9th), Australia (11th), the UK (14th) and Ireland (16th).

So for all our secret pining for Scandinavian-like social services, we’re almost as happy as our Danish cousins. And they had nothing like the recent crash and burn we had.

The top-ranked countries also tended to rank high in all six variables. Ireland ranked sixth for social support and GDP per capita (this is inflated by multinationals); 20th in terms of healthy life expectancy; and 33rd for perceived freedom to make life choices.

Governments are frequently rebuked for the their hyperfocus on indicators such as GDP and employment, but getting those right goes a long way in the happiness charts, it would seem.