What are the happiest countries?


Most surveys reveal the tiny kingdom of Denmark as the happiest country in the world. Depending on which survey you review, it’s followed (or occasionally preceded) by neighbors such as Sweden and Finland, and countries like the Netherlands, Australia and Canada aren’t far behind. America usually doesn’t make it into the top 10.


Common denominators

The happiest countries tend to have several things in common: They’re wealthy democracies and have strong social safety nets including universal health care and free (and generally good) education, decent unemployment benefits and a good balance between work and leisure time. In many cases there’s also a relatively small gap between the richest and poorest citizens.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener has traveled the world from Greenland to Calcutta researching the happiness of various populations. He is the author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. He says rich Danes and rich Americans look quite similar to one another on a graph. “Where you find the difference is in poor people,” he adds. “Poor Danes look exactly like rich Danes [on a happiness scale]. Poor Americans look very different from rich ones. Poor Americans are high in negative affect (anger, worry, etc.) and have lower overall positive evaluations of their lives.”

He says it’s likely that poorer Danes “feel more included, or the income equality of the society makes everyone feel worthwhile psychologically,” whereas poor Americans, living in an acquisitive, status-conscious society, feel every inch of difference between “them and us.”

A stable society

Other factors also come into play. “Denmark is a pretty well-run society,” Biswas-Diener says. “When you walk around, you feel relatively safe and see relatively small amounts of street crime and homelessness.” It also has a small population, which, traditionally, has been homogenous, though immigrant levels have risen in recent years. But that sense of shared background means people trust each other: Danes happily leave their babies in strollers outside stores while they shop.

Of course the same can’t be said for places like Australia and especially Canada, home to millions of immigrants. But like all the countries on the “happiest” top 10 lists, these nations tend to be socially, politically and economically stable, and the state has a robust role in society.

Still, happiness doesn’t just revolve around feeling relatively well off and taken care of.

Biswas-Diener comments on what he calls “the Latin American effect.” “In general, these [Latin American] countries are happier than you would expect given their income. So somewhere they’re getting this boost of happiness. Where is it coming from? They’re relatively poor. Why is it that a comparable country in Southeast Asia isn’t as happy?” The answer, he says, is that South Americans “have cultural norms for emotion that are pretty intense and positive.” In other words, it’s easier for someone from Venezuela to get a kick out of life than it is for a person from Vietnam.

Biswas-Diener would like to scotch a couple of myths, too. Many of us have heard a version of this: A friend comes back from a trip to Africa and raves about how happy local villagers were, despite having few comforts, by Western standards, and living on the economic edge. “Let’s not romanticize these people’s lives,” he says. “When you talk to them, they say things like, ‘My husband drinks all the time; he beats me; how can I get to the United States?’ A lot of the smiles are on the kids.” But he concedes, “Even adults enjoy a certain buffer from the dire effects of poverty. They have such a nice social fabric there; they feel so ensconced in a community.” Again, close ties to other people make the difference.

Biswas-Diener says that’s why the Calcutta homeless are happier than those in California and Oregon. “They’re not looked down upon by the entire rest of society.”