Norway tops happiness index while mistrust blights the US

By on 21/03/2017
Norway is first place in this year’s world happiness index (Image courtesy mroach/Flickr)

Norway has leapt from fourth to first place in this year’s world happiness index, on account of its high levels of social support and the absence of corruption in government and business.

These factors also explain the decline of happiness in the US, which has slipped down a place in the World Happiness Report 2017 – a ranking produced by the United Nations and published on Monday, the ‘International Day of Happiness’.

The US, where GDP is still rising but happiness is now falling, dropped to 14th place this year; it was third among OECD countries in 2007. It is, the report explains, a country mired in social crisis that is looking for happiness “in all the wrong places”.

The report finds that in the US “trust in government has plummeted to the lowest level in modern history”, consistent with a rise in the perception of corruption. It also states that income inequality has “reached astronomical levels”, with the top 1% of American households taking almost all the economic growth gains of recent decades.

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach,” the report finds.

To rebuild social trust and confidence in government, it concludes, the US should focus on finance reform, policies to reduce inequality, improving social relations between native-born and immigrant populations, moving past the fear created by 9/11, and improving access to education.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and one of the report authors, said in an interview that Donald Trump’s proposed economic measures would make things worse.

“They are all aimed at increasing inequality: tax cuts at the top, throwing people off the healthcare rolls, cutting Meals on Wheels in order to raise military spending. I think everything that has been proposed goes in the wrong direction,” said Sachs, who is also a special advisor to the UN secretary-general.

He called for countries to follow the example of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has appointed a minister of state for happiness. The UAE now screens all government policies to ensure they improve happiness.

Denmark, which drops into second place this year, has topped the ranking three times in the past five years. Iceland, Switzerland and Finland make up the top five. Rwanda, Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic make up the bottom five, of 155 countries measured.

Despite Britain’s woes over Brexit it enters the top 20 this year, climbing from 23rd to 19th place.

To create the ranking the UN combined several datasets, including GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (measured by recent donations).

Happiness is increasingly considered to be an important goal of public policy and a measure of social progress. The World Government Summit held in the UAE in February 2017 dedicated a full day to discussing happiness, while in June 2016, the OECD promised to redefine growth by putting “people’s wellbeing at the center of governments’ efforts”.

Attempting to identify the sources of happiness and misery, the UN report looks at major surveys from the US, Britain, Australia and Indonesia. It concludes that in Western countries, where few people struggle to meet their basic needs, mental illness is the biggest determinant of misery. Mental health also matters in Indonesia, but not as much as income.

Research by the London School of Economics found that, of four different interventions, abolishing depression and anxiety would have by far the biggest impact on happiness at the lowest cost. Launching the research last year, former UK civil service head Gus O’Donnell called for governments to appraise policies in terms of how they affect people’s happiness rather than countries’ GDP.

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See also:

New research boosts crusade to embed happiness in public policy

Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, UK: Exclusive Interview

APEX award winner Jennifer Hollington’s 5-step guide to creating a healthy workplace

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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