The annual World Happiness Report is out, and it’s not great news for the U.S., which fell four places to 18th this year.
Finland inched out last year’s winner Norway to take the top spot. The tiny country of 5.5 million people tucked into a northern corner of Europe has long received accolades for its quality of life. The World Economic Forum judged it one of the best countries in the world for gender equality, and it made the top 10 of the world’s most environmentally friendly countries in Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index. Finland also has an estimated 2 million saunas and the densest forests in the world.
“The most important building blocks for a happy society are democracy, equality, good education and high quality child care, as well as taking care of each other,” Finnish Ambassador Päivi Luostarinen told HuffPost. “These values are very important for Finns. I also think our relationship with nature, and national character, play parts in our happiness.”
Finland placed well across all indicators – income, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, trust and generosity – in the United Nations report, which ranked 156 countries on happiness levels using data from Gallup World Poll Surveys from 2015 to 2017.
The top 10, as usual, was dominated by Nordic countries: Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. This strong showing demonstrates “Nordic happiness”, according to Michael Birkjær, an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. This, he said, comes from “healthy amounts of personal freedom, trust (both in other people and in the system) and social security, which outweighs residents having to pay some of the highest taxes in the world.”
For the first time since it began in 2012, the report made migration a big focus. “Human populations have always migrated,” Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, an Oxford professor who co-authored the report, told HuffPost. “But what has been lost in that account has been the focus on well-being. Are they becoming happier by moving to a new country? How does that relate to the well-being in the country of origin? The recipient country?”
The findings are striking, De Neve said. The report found an almost complete convergence between the happiness of the host nation and the happiness of the migrants. That means people who move from unhappier countries to happier ones see an upward shift in their well-being.
“What makes Finland very special,” he added, “is [that it] is both No. 1 in terms of self-reported life satisfaction across the board, but also No. 1 for migrant happiness.”
Well-being levels were much less positive in the U.S., however. The report points out a paradox about happiness in America. While income per capita has more than doubled in the U.S. since 1972, happiness and well-being has declined.
“It’s scary,” said De Neve, “The U.S. is at its lowest unemployment levels and seeing huge growth at the moment ― Trump obviously wants even more than that ― and yet in terms of well-being they’re actually decreasing.”
The report attributes this to factors that include weakening social support networks, perceptions of government corruption, and falling confidence in public institutions. But the factor the report dwells on most is public health.
Obesity, the opioid crisis, and depression are global problems, but “the prevalence of all three problems has been growing faster and further [in the U.S.] than in most other countries,” according to the report.
This can be ascribed to factors including rising income inequality, economist Jeffrey Sachs, another report co-author, wrote in the report, and the “persistent absolute and relative poverty” of a significant portion of the U.S. population, which shoulders a disproportionate share of these public health crises.
“Alarm bells should be ringing,” said De Neve. “We can’t just rely on economic growth and think everything will be fine. It’s not translating into more well-being for the general population.”
Top 10 happiest countries
- New Zealand
Top 10 least-happy countries
- Central African Republic
- South Sudan
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that the United States was ranked 14th this year and 11th last year. In fact, it was ranked 18th this year and 14th last year.
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