Who’s Happy Now?

Society Lifestyle

World Happiness Report 2015

“Are you happy?”

Many people would probably have a hard time answering that question. The Shiji, an early history of China, tells us that fortune and misfortune are interwoven, with one following the other. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–62) presented the issue as a paradox: since people continually pursue happiness, they inevitably never attain it.

Maybe so, but it is still interesting to see the nations of the world ranked according to how happy their citizens are. In April the United Nations issued the latest in a series of reports on world happiness to promote policies aimed at fostering sustainable development. This year’s installment, the World Happiness Report 2015, ranks 158 countries in order of relative happiness. Japan is listed as the 46th happiest nation.

Northern Europe, Home of the Happy

Switzerland is reported to be the happiest country in the world, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia. Seven of these top-10 countries are in Northern Europe.

Iceland has risen in the ranks, despite having endured a severe financial crisis shortly after the turn of the century. The report attributes this to the high degree of mutual social support enjoyed by its citizens. The United Kingdom, Germany, and France may be the most powerful nations in Western Europe, but when it comes to happiness they are 21st, 26th, and 29th, respectively. That puts them some way behind Israel, Mexico, and the United States, which are grouped close together in 11th, 14th, and 15th place, respectively. The 10 countries at the very bottom of the list consist of the war-ravaged nations of Afghanistan and Syria and eight poverty-stricken, disease-plagued nations in sub-Saharan Africa: Togo, Burundi, Benin, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Chad.

The calculation of national happiness scores was based on six key variables: per capita gross domestic product, health and life expectancy, social support (in the form of someone to count on in times of trouble), perceived freedom to make one’s own life decisions, trust (as expressed by perceived absence of corruption), and the relative prevalence of generosity in the society. A team of scholars and researchers commissioned by the United Nations awarded each country from zero to 10 points for each variable and used the point totals to calculate an overall happiness score. The average score was 5.1.

Happiness amid Adversity

One of the editors of the World Happiness Report 2015, Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University in the United States, points out that the makeup of the 13 top-ranked countries is the same as it was last year. These are all relatively wealthy countries with societies marked by strong interpersonal ties and comparatively honest and accountable governance. The report states that monetary wealth alone is not enough to ensure happiness. A fair society and, at the individual level, trust, honesty, and good health are needed as well. The report also notes that an economic crisis or natural disaster does not necessarily prevent an overall sense of wellbeing. By way of example, the authors cite “research showing that levels of trust and social capital in the Fukushima region of Japan were sufficient that the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 actually led to increased trust and happiness in the region.” On the other hand, Greece, which has endured economic hardship and an ongoing debt crisis, is cited as “the biggest happiness loser” and an example of what can occur when mutual trust among citizens breaks down.

Gross National Happiness

Forty years before the United Nations began issuing reports on national happiness levels in 2012, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan had already adopted “gross national happiness” as its preferred yardstick for quantifying the ways in which economic development was improving life for the Bhutanese, whose culture is infused with Buddhist spiritual values. This was a reaction to the prevailing reliance on gross national product, representing a West European notion of material prosperity, to express a nation’s overall wellbeing. Gross national happiness is calculated on the basis of four principal factors: sustainable and equitable social development, preservation of the culture, conservation of the environment, and good governance. Although there is still no definitive quantitative definition of gross national happiness, it continues to be the guiding concept for many policies enacted by the government of Bhutan.

Bhutan’s quest for gross national happiness, and the philosophy behind it, eventually helped form the basis for the United Nations reports on world happiness. There have been related initiatives by other countries as well. Thailand created a Green and Happiness Index in 2007, and South Korea unveiled its own Happiness Index in 2012; unhappily, South Korea itself was ranked near the bottom. In another effort to assess happiness and wellbeing, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development introduced a Better Life Index in 2011.

Japan: Middling Happiness

What should we make of the fact that Japan is said to be the 46th happiest country in the world? Japan certainly earned a high score for life expectancy, but it made a poor showing in terms of freedom to make life decisions in comparison to the top-ranked European nations. Furthermore, Japan is no longer near the top in per capita gross domestic product.

The findings of the 2008 National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences conducted by the Japanese government’s Cabinet Office identify factors that affect happiness, as shown below.
Factors that have a positive effect on happiness Factors that have a negative effect on happiness Factors that have no effect on happiness
Being a female Being elderly Being self-employed
Having children Being unemployed Having experienced trouble
Being married Being under stress
Having a high income
Having a university degree or advanced degree
Being a student
Having someone to talk to
The question of whether a person is happy is undeniably subjective, depending as it does on personal emotion. Even so, such considerations as the amount of trust in society, the condition of one’s health, and whether one has people to rely on certainly have a significant effect on happiness. If both individual nations and the world as a whole are to attain the goal of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” originally formulated by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), it is more important than ever to strive for a fair and sustainable society.

National Happiness Rankings: The Top 50

Rank Country Score Rank Country Score
1 Switzerland 7.587 26 Germany 6.750
2 Iceland 7.561 27 Chile 6.670
3 Denmark 7.527 28 Qatar 6.611
4 Norway 7.522 29 France 6.575
5 Canada 7.427 30 Argentina 6.574
6 Finland 7.406 31 Czech Republic 6.505
7 Netherlands 7.378 32 Uruguay 6.485
8 Sweden 7.364 33 Colombia 6.477
9 New Zealand 7.286 34 Thailand 6.455
10 Australia 7.284 35 Saudi Arabia 6.411
11 Israel 7.278 36 Spain 6.329
12 Costa Rica 7.226 37 Malta 6.302
13 Austria 7.200 38 Taiwan 6.298
14 Mexico 7.187 39 Kuwait 6.295
15 United States 7.119 40 Suriname 6.269
16 Brazil 6.983 41 Trinidad and Tobago 6.168
17 Luxembourg 6.946 42 El Salvador 6.130
18 Ireland 6.940 43 Guatemala 6.123
19 Belgium 6.937 44 Uzbekistan 6.003
20 United Arab Emirates 6.901 45 Slovakia 5.995
21 United Kingdom 6.867 46 Japan 5.987
22 Oman 6.853 47 South Korea 5.984
23 Venezuela 6.810 48 Ecuador 5.975
24 Singapore 6.798 49 Bahrain 5.960
25 Panama 6.786 50 Italy 5.948
(Originally written in Japanese by Murakami Naohisa of Nippon.com and published on June 2, 2015.)

Bhutan United Nations World Happiness Report Gross National Happiness survey