The Science of Happiness, Part 2: Do You Live In A Happy Country?

Map of the WorldIn Part 1 of this series on the Science of Happiness, I wrote about a happiness set point.

This is Part 2, where we take a look at the relationship between happiness and geography.

Is where you live correlated with how happy you are? —  The answer is yes. But it is a complicated answer. There is a lot of research on the relationship between happiness and geography. As you might imagine, the results depend at least partially on which questions you ask. If you ask people how satisfied they are with their life, and how they felt about the previous day, then you get the data that Forbes reported on from Gallup. The top “happiest” countries according to Gallup are:

  1. Denmark
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. Sweden
  5. The Netherlands

at the bottom of the list of 155 countries are:

  1. Sierra Leone
  2. Cambodia
  3. Comoros
  4. Burundi
  5. Togo

On the Gallup list the United States is #14 and the UK is #17

(If, instead of asking people you measure things like income, access to education, etc, you get very different data, in other words, objective measures don’t agree with subjective measures. A great source of objective measures is the UN’s Human Development Indicators).

Gross National Happiness — In his book, The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner covers the research on happiness and geography, with a bit of satire thrown in. He travels to several of the countries at the top of the list, a few in between, and a few at the bottom, and writes about his adventures, including his visit to Bhutan where they invented and use a GNH (Gross National Happiness) index to make policy decisions instead of the GNP (Gross National Product) or GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

Trust is the Key — Weiner summarizes the research this way: The more the people in a country trust their government, the higher up they are on the happiness scale. Another strong factor is the amount of family and social ties that the people in that country have.

Time to move to Denmark? — What do you think? Should we all go move to the Scandinavian countries that rank high? Is this just a correlation and not a causation? Do you think geography is linked to happiness?

If you’d like to dig deeper:

Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss, Twelve, 2008

Forbes article on the Gallup research

UN Human Development Indicators


A Podcast on Affordances and Adaptive Interfaces with Justin Davis
The Science of Happiness, Part 1: Everyone Has A Happiness "Set Point"

7 Replies to “The Science of Happiness, Part 2: Do You Live In A Happy Country?”

  1. If the standard of living is generally good then you will find that the majority of people are happy. In the United Kingdom you have free state education up to 16tears old also free national health IE you do not pay to see the doctor or hospital operations. If you are unemployed you receive an unemployment benefit with your rent paid free. If you asked the average unemployed person their views on their living standards they would reply ‘very poor’ Offer this standard and benefits to a 3rd world person and they would feel they are wealthy. How you see yourself socially is relative to others around you. This is the reason Muslims fast for thirty days a year to have empathy with those less fortunate.

    Fasting In Ramadan and Eid UL Fitr 2012

  2. I do agree. I have been born n brought up in Mumbai. And I used to like my city coz I was more like a frog in the well.. Not had visited any other cities (or countries) before. And then I got a chance to visit Malaysia for a week and that created the need in me to relocate. Finally I got an offer from South Korea and I stayed there for a year. And I guess my life changed for good. The credit goes to the beautiful city Seoul. I was back last year in Mumbai but somehow I cannot seem to take Korea out of my mind.

    Well I am close to my family and my friends and I spend quality time with them but then there are those small small things about the city that irritates me a lot. The overgrowing population, the poverty, the corruption. My current city is making me suffer for no fault of mine. So in a way I can say I am not happy with my city and I want things to change around me drastically.

  3. I fantasize about moving to Denmark or Sweden – not for the geography but for the access to medical care. That, and they do seem to be more egalitarian.

  4. I’m from Sweden and I have to say that the part with trusting your governement I think is a great factor. Another thing I can say, after having lived in several countries is that Sweden’s “free” health care, dental care and schools, two years payed maternity leave and the guarantee that you’ll be taken care of if you lose your job or have to retire early gives you a great relief and security. With that said, I think that this is also an interesteing angle on the whole “Happiness depending on where you live,” and something to take into consideration.

  5. Fascinating. I am in preproduction for an international travel show and this is just the kind of thing I want to discover for myself. I can’t wait to read the book.

    Thanks for the write-up!

  6. Interesting article. With Scandinavian countries at the top of the list it shows that money isn’t truly a factor in happiness since they are also 3 of the highest taxed countries to live in. Socialism might be a factor, but it costs a lot, something the US is learning about now.

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