Last summer, Brexit shocked the world. Few global experts saw it coming. In their defense, most economic indicators didn’t point to a political upheaval. Gross domestic product in the U.K. was growing at about 2 percent, and unemployment had dropped to 4.9 percent. From a data perspective, things seemed OK.
Another metric, however, showed something different happening in the U.K. ― “happiness.” In the two years leading up to Brexit, Gallup found that the percentage of people who were “happy” (or “thriving”) was in dramatic decline. In fact, the 15-percentage-point decline in the percentage of people rating their lives positively enough to be considered thriving was so dramatic that it remains among the largest two-year drops in Gallup’s history of global tracking.
Today, the U.N. launches its next iteration of its “World Happiness Report.” Popularized by previous reports, these happiness rankings have become world famous. Many people can quickly identify Denmark, Norway and Switzerland as among the happiest countries. What people don’t know is how happiness is measured and why it’s so important to track.
The U.N.’s happiness rankings use one data point from a massive survey known as the Gallup World Poll. That data point comes from a question that asks people in more than 150 countries to rate their lives on a scale of zero to 10 ― with zero being the worst possible life and 10 being the best possible life. The latest rankings show Syrians, Burundians and Central Africans rating their lives the worst (about a 3.0) and people in the Nordic countries rating their lives the best (7.5 on average).
While the metric is known as “life satisfaction,” there is some disagreement as to whether it should actually be labeled as “happiness.” Regardless of what we call the metric, it’s important to watch.
Brexit is not the only global event for which happiness metrics served as a leading indicator of broad citizen discomfort. Perhaps the most prominent example was the lead-up to the Arab uprising. Even the most trustworthy indicators such as GDP and the U.N.’s Human Development Index proved unreliable in forecasting the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Bahrain. Happiness, on the other hand, told a different story. While GDP per capita grew in almost perfect linear fashion in all four Arab countries, happiness plummeted.
Similar trends are seen in the lead-up to the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine. Since the revolution, Ukrainians’ happiness ratings have been at record lows. In fact, Ukraine is the only European country near the bottom of the happiness list, ranking 132nd.
Happiness might also determine how people vote, according to researchers at the London School of Economics. When comparing happiness data and election outcomes from 15 countries in Europe from 1973 to 2012, Professor George Ward found that “... a country’s level of life satisfaction is a robust predictor of election results.”
Using Gallup data from more than 150 countries, today’s report again ranks the world’s happiest countries. The information will be fun to consume ― especially for people who live in the world’s happiest countries ― but leaders should pay close attention to the results. Measures of how people rate their lives are quickly becoming just as important as indicators of income and employment.
Measures of how people rate their lives are quickly becoming just as important as indicators of income and employment.
This year’s happiest ― and unhappiest ― countries in the world are listed below.
These data are available in Gallup Analytics.
World Happiness Rankings
Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that 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, assuming that the higher the step the better you feel about your life, and the lower the step the worse you feel about it? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?
United Arab Emirates
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Central African Republic
Averages based on Gallup World Poll surveys conducted in 2014-2016
Gallup World Poll
Jon Clifton is Managing Director, Gallup World Poll. Originally published at Gallup.com.