By Elizabeth Scott, MS
Since April 2012, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network has been publishing their annual report on the happiness and well-being levels of citizens worldwide. This report, known simply as "The World Happiness Report," is used as a measure of social progress and influences public policy more and more.
The findings of this report can also be used by each of us on an individual level as we would use the findings of other research on happiness and well-being; knowing what influences happiness in general can help us all lead happier, healthier lives.
How It Works
This report measures the subjective well-being of roughly 1000 people in each of more than 150 countries around the globe. “Subjective well-being” refers to each person’s assessment of their own level of well-being, as opposed to an outside measure that’s not influenced by people’s personal estimates of their happiness.
This measure of happiness and well-being is assessed by asking the subjects the following: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from zero 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 do you personally feel you stand at this time?”
The researchers also collect other data on subjects and assess how six factors of a country contribute to the average well-being levels of its inhabitants. These key factors are GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.
What They’ve Found
The World Happiness Report has given us some valuable information in the years that it’s been sharing data. For example, we know from this and past reports that social factors greatly affect people’s happiness and well-being. We know the other five factors studied also have a great impact on the happiness of the people in each country, and that countries that are more stable economically, unsurprisingly, have inhabitants with higher happiness levels.
Perhaps one of the most important findings from previous years is that, of the happiness variation that can be explained by the six factors that are measured, GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy accounted for about half of the happiness levels, with the other four factors made up the rest. Interestingly, these four factors are all related to social features of life.
Another valuable aspect of these reports is the ability to compare the happiness levels of people within a single country and the happiness levels of people between different countries. For example, there is an 80 percent variation in happiness levels among people within some countries, which means that while the average rates of happiness are higher among people in certain countries and lower in others, there are also many differences in the happiness levels of people within the same country. Particularly among richer countries, this tends to point to factors that are more easy to control by each individual, such as mental health, physical health, and relationship factors.
It’s also important to see how some countries maintain their happiness levels and other countries’ happiness levels fluctuate. For example, comparing the 2017 happiness rank of the U.S. helps us to see the impact of different changes that occur and to see the importance of other factors that stay the same.
This can help us to understand what creates stability in happiness and what is most important to pursue in our lives.
Why Happiness Depends on Our Relationships
Healthy relationships contribute greatly to happiness levels in ways that are both direct and indirect. Relationships touch virtually every area of our lives, and this was shown in this year’s report as well as reports of previous years.
Our social situation influences our income, health, availability of support, sense of freedom, experience of generosity, resilience, and the very course our lives take. In all ways that we can, investing in our relationships can pay off.
Who’s the Happiest?
In terms of countries with the highest rates of happiness, the countries that rank highest in happiness this year are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. These are all countries that also rank high in the factors that are known to contribute to personal happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, health, income, honesty, and governance that supports the people.
Comparing this year’s results to those of previous years, these countries tend to be stable in their levels of happiness and tend to rank closely enough to one another that they all stay close in rank with minor shifts in rank from year to year. This tells us that the factors that contribute to the happiness of these countries are factors that contribute to more stable happiness in people.
In more individual terms, personal happiness is greatly affected by mental health, physical health, and healthy relationships, as previously mentioned. One of the main aspects of relationship health that most contributes to happiness is the ability to have someone to count on.
Another important finding, which echoes other happiness research, is that positive experiences were found to contribute to many other measures of happiness and well-being, meaning that having more positive experiences (and a healthy social life leads to many of these) leads people to other experiences that are associated with well-being. Those who have a positive state of mind tend to feel less stressed by challenges they face, and they also tend to notice the resources that are available to them, which creates a sense of greater personal resilience. This means that the happiest people tend to be those who have healthy relationships and who make the most of positive experiences (more on this later).
The Case of the United States
The United States was a country that has experienced a decrease in happiness over the past several years. In fact, not only has it decreased by about half a point on the 1 to 10 self-report scale in the past 10 years, it was ranked third happiest of the 23 OED countries in 2007 and it now ranks 19th.
Because four of the six factors studied have decreased, and those four factors are considered social in nature (feelings of social support, personal freedom, donations given, and freedom from corruption), this has been thought to underscore the importance of social influences on happiness. While there are several recommended courses of action that can be made by the policy-makers and powers that be, this information can also motivate us personally to invest in our relationships and create greater social support for ourselves and our loved ones, to come together as communities, and to focus on cultivating healthy relationships with others.
What Causes the Greatest Misery?
Mental health issues were found to have the power to profoundly affect personal happiness and well-being. For example, in Western societies, diagnosed mental illness had a greater effect on happiness than income, employment, or even physical health. In fact, physical health was important in every country, but it was found to be less important than mental health as a determinant of happiness and well-being in every country. Depression and anxiety disorders were found to be the main form of mental illness, and eliminating them would bring the greatest positive effects on people in all countries.
This makes a strong case for doing what we can to build our personal resilience to stress and the challenges we face in life. There are many things we can do to build resilience, including making lifestyle changes, shifts in perspective, and building a supportive network. This also demonstrates the importance of seeking support from friends or professional helpers if necessary to tend to our mental health in the same way we would safeguard our physical health.
Other Factors That Affect Happiness
- Education: Level of education was found to have a positive effect on happiness in every country except Australia. However, education on its own was a less powerful factor than many others, like income. Also, the effects of education appear to be relative, meaning that people with higher levels of education tend to be happier than those in their own country who have lower levels of education, but countries with higher levels of average education don’t tend to be happier than countries with lower average levels. Finally, it is important to note that in children, emotional health is a greater predictor of well-being than education level.
- Income: Level of income tended to have a stronger effect on happiness than education, but still accounted for only 2 percent of the variance of happiness among people in the same country. This means that, like education, income creates more of a relative happiness. Also, emotional health had a greater effect on happiness than did income. In children, income level was less of a predictor of children’s emotional health and behavior than the emotional health of the mother.
- Being in a Relationship: One of the things that was found to be strongly correlated with happiness in many countries was the feeling of "having someone to count on." Having a partner was found to have a stronger positive impact on happiness in Western countries. In Indonesia, having a partner was found to be less important, but this may be due to the greater importance of extended family.
There are many factors that affect happiness and well-being, and many of the most important factors are under our influence. Relationships, for example, affect us in many vital ways and investing in healthy relationships is well worth the effort. Emotional health is also one of the strongest factors in happiness and well-being, so developing the ability to cope with feelings of anxiety and depression can be very beneficial.
World Happiness Report 2017.