The World happiness report 2017. What creates a happy society.

22 Mar

Happy culture

The World happiness report 2017 has provided a wealth of information that social engineers, economists and Governments can learn from. We now have the ability to share and compare data from 155 countries around the world. Why does one country score higher than another on the happiness index and what can we learn from this


How is this done?

Out of the 155 countries roughly 1,000 participants from each population is asked a series of questions based on life evaluations on subjective wellbeing.The questions can come in different formats.

  • A binary 1 or 0 answer. 1 for true 0 for false
  • A Cantril ladder question ” Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

How do we measure subjective wellbeing

The OECD provided guidelines on measuring Subjective wellbeing in 2013. This definition of subjective well being covers 3 areas.

  1. Life evaluation-a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it.
  2. Affect-a person’s feelings or emotional states, typically measured with reference to particular point in time.
  3. Eudaimoniaa- a sense of meaning and purpose in life, or good psychological functioning.

The 6 key foundations to a countries happiness.

So in trying to define how we can measure a countries happiness, it was decided that there were six key areas that mattered. Once the data was collected and collated a uniform picture would develop of each countries level of happiness.

  1. GDP per capita
  2. Social support
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Social freedom
  5. Generosity
  6. Absence of corruption

Before we get into the six different foundations of happiness and how they vary internationally. Let us look at some of the discoveries that came from the latest research and reporting on happiness.

There is no happiness set point.

For years researchers believed that everyone had a set point of happiness that rarely moved. You could have a set point happiness score of 5.8 out of 10 and then win the lottery and your score would rise to 7.9 quite quickly but then you would return after a period of time to your original 5.8 set point.

Four independent lines of evidence point towards this. This is especially evident in the migration of populations into new environments and adapting new set points in the new country comparable to the residents of their new rather than old country.

What else matters?

What also was learned was

  • That the existence of positive emotions matters much more than the absence of negative ones. Trying to eliminate the negatives without supplementing your life with positives does not have the same impact on wellbeing.
  • That freedom and generosity have a large impact on positive affect.
  • There is much evidence that those who have happier lives are more likely to “live longer, be most trusting, be more co-operative and be generally better able to meet life demands” this will feedback to improve health,GDP,generosity,corruption and sense of freedom.
  • Average Life evaluation in top 10 countries are twice as high as the bottom 10.
  • The GDP of the top 10 countries is 25 times higher than those in the bottom 10. Who said money does not matter.
  • With scoring out of a possible 10. The gap between the top 10 countries and the bottom 10 was a huge 4 point gap. Norway scored a 7.537 in number one position and Syria scored a 3.462 in 152nd place. The reasoning is quite evident.

Who are the happiest and unhappiest?

  1. Norway  (7.537)                      155. Cen Afri Rep(2.693)
  2. Denmark (7.522)                    154. Burundi (2.905)
  3. Iceland  (7.504)                       153. Tanzania (3.349)
  4. Switzerland (7.494)                152. Syria (3.462)
  5. Finland   (7.469)                      151. Rwanda (3.471)
  6. Netherlands (7.377)               150. Togo (3.495)
  7. Canada    (7.316)                     149. Guinea (3.507)
  8. New Zealand (7.314)              148. Liberia (3.533)
  9. Australia  (7.284)                     147. South Sudan (3.591)
  10. Sweden   (7.284)                      146. Yemen (3.593)

Here are the findings.


Maslows Pyramid of hierarchical needs proves that if people have not had their basic needs met then they cannot concentrate on happiness or self actualisation. Being in poverty allows little time to concentrate on what increases wellbeing and a positive life evaluation. So GDP does matter but on its own will never complete a picture of happiness.

Economic performance is the key foundation to Economic growth. Those countries with higher level of trust can see stronger levels of growth that can permeate positively through society once good governance is present.

Social support


If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?  was the question asked of individuals a binary 1 or 0 was the answer given.

Having someone to count on has a very large impact on our wellbeing even when everything else is taken into account. With this in mind 99% of the Icelandic population reacted positively to this question. The Irish populace did the same. Two countries that only 8 years previously fell into economic collapse. This accompanied by good governance in both countries allowed them to take the number 3 and 15 slot respectively. Positions that would seem should have been lower rankings.

For a country to have 10% more of its population with someone to rely on is the equivalent  to a doubling of its GDP. Increase your social supports and you may as well have doubled GDP. It is hard to feel happy when you have a huge sense of loneliness and no one to turn to.

Healthy life expectancy.

Social support is important as is a wide range of social connections. A Swedish study by Rosengren found that exposure to stressful events sharply increased subsequent mortality among previously healthy men. The risk was almost entirely eliminated for those who felt they had high levels of emotional support.

Those with a broad range of social contacts have a much lower susceptibility to a common cold virus. In an experimental study it was discovered that those with enduring conflicts were more than twice as likely to develop a cold when exposed to a cold virus.

Generosity also plays a big part to play in happiness. Generosity benefits physical health with a variety of studies proving that the health benefits are greater for the giver.

Also global evidence that significant links between social trust and health status. High inequality in income has an effect on health status. Social Support and volunteering also play a major part in a nation’s health.

Social Freedom

The question asked was “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what to do with your lives? The Answer again was a binary 1 or 0.Maybe more scope for greater information on people’s freedom is needed here. The variations across countries was large ranging from a lowly 26% to a high of 98%. If a country was able to increase their social freedom score by 10% it would be the equivalent of a growth of 40% in GDP  which is a remarkable return on creating a society with greater living choices. For many countries like Denmark, Norway, Germany, Finland and Sweden where education is free to all. The ability to make life choices on careers and learning that other countries can not provide makes a marked difference to the way the populace view their future and the autonomy they are given to design it.



The question put to participants was “Have you given money to a charitable cause in the past 30 days? In richer societies this is an easier option with greater disposable finances to contribute with. When collating data it was adjusted for income effects so that they can be sure that the effect is not a consequence of higher incomes. By doing this it also increases the estimated effects of per capita incomes.

Generosity also plays a big part to play in happiness. Generosity benefits physical health with a variety of studies proving that the health benefits are greater for the giver. Which could also be born out by policy advisor Simon Anholts research into the countries that do more good for other countries in the world. The top five are….

New Zealand
All top 15 countries. Doing good makes you feel good.

An increase by 10% in populace donations would provide an equivalent boost of 25% GDP. Subjective wellbeing research shows that in all cultures even from early childhood people are drawn to helping others and when they do they are happier.

Corruption,trust and good governance.

Two questions are asked here and they relate to corruption within in business and government in their respective countries. Just like within the workplace trust is important. High trust societies are happier places to live.

Norway has an open and transparent society on the most part everyone’s tax returns and salaries are open for everyone to see online at Skattetaten, even the Royal family.

If you decreased by 10% the number of the population that thought corruption was a problem it would garner an equivalent rise in GDP by 20%.

It is noted that good governance enables countries to sustain or improve happiness. Norway has weathered a downturn in oil prices by extracting oil supplies slowly over a number of years rather than extracting and selling all reserves.Maintaining a purse for all it’s citizens . For while other countries have struck oil and then binged on the revenues, by contrast Norway is continuing to invest its oil and gas money in a giant sovereign wealth fund.
The fund, worth about $800bn (£483bn), owns 1% of the entire world’s stocks, and is big enough to make every citizen a millionaire in the country’s currency, the kroner. In effect, it is a giant savings account.
Allowing them to ride out any storm that oil prices may be causing.

People are more satisfied in countries with greater governance.

In conclusion

The potential benefits from improving the social foundations of wellbeing are enormous. Danish Researchers have calculated that those who are 15 years or more in the same community see decrease in the possibility  of a U-shaped dropped in happiness in mid-life in comparison to those residing in a community for shorter periods.

Social support does matter to overall wellbeing and health. Provide greater opportunities for this and see happiness rise within communities. An equivalent doubling of GDP.

Provide people with free education provides greater sense  of social freedom. Denmark , Germany, Finland , Norway and Sweden provide all this. While many of the unhappier countries are poorer and can not or do not provide any education or third level options for life choices.

In the top 10 countries life evaluations average 7.4 on the 1-10 scale. While the bottom 10 average is 3.4 such a large differential generally scoring low on all 6 areas.With GDP Life expectancy through health and lack of social support being the greatest contributors to unhappiness. Target these and happiness will slowly increase. Also it was noted that changing the focus from income to happiness greatly increases ways of improving the lives of the unhappy.

Improve social support, generosity and a trustworthy environment  like many of the northern European countries and Canada experience and everybody wins.





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  1. American happiness is broken | Thelollipopeffect - March 24, 2017

    […] in America is still on the rise. But happiness levels are dropping. As noted in my post on “What creates a happy society“.we know that happiness when calculated is broken down to 6 foundations. GDP per […]


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