While personal happiness is a matter of opinion, there are some elements that are present in all happy societies.
A happy person is content with his own life — he feels that he makes a valuable contribution to society, and has love and warmth in his personal life. Given enough of this in a population, a society could become one of the happiest countries in the world.
It should come as no surprise that many of the countries with some of the happiest citizens in the world are also some of the richest countries. But money is only part of the story.
In this article, we will take a look at the most recent World Happiness Report to see the similarities and differences in the happiest countries in the world, and the factors that contribute to the well being of their citizens’ lives.
Table of Contents
What is the World Happiness Report 2023?
According to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, while personal happiness is subjective from individual to individual, there are some elements that are present in all happy societies.
The nongovernmental group has ranked more than 150 nations over the past 11 years based on the self-assessments of their residents’ quality of life, which includes social assistance, income, health, freedom, benevolence, and lack of corruption.
This is the reason the Sustainable Development Solutions Network uses data from the Gallup World Poll to produce the World Happiness Report.
The call for governments to use happiness and well-being as policy metrics is reflected in the World Happiness Report, and it examines the current level of happiness around the globe and demonstrates how the study of happiness can shed light on the causes of individual and societal differences in this regard.
“The overall goal is a happier society,” professor Richard Layard, co-director of the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics and editor of the report, said in a press release.
“But we only get there if people make each other happy (and not just themselves). It’s an inspiring goal for us as individuals. And it includes the happiness of future generations — and our own mental health.”
The annual happiness rankings are based on responses to the Gallup World Poll about how people feel about their lives overall.
They are based on how you responded to the primary life assessment question. Respondents are asked to visualize a ladder for the Cantril scale, with a 10 representing the best conceivable existence and a 0 representing the worst.
The participants are then asked to evaluate their own life using the same scale from 0 to 10. The rankings are based on data collected from across the country for a period of three years.
The study used cross-national data on these six variables and their estimated correlations with life satisfaction ratings to explain this difference.
Examples of these are per capita income, social services, longevity, personal liberty, charitable giving, and the prevalence of corruption.
The rankings of happiness are not based on any index of these six factors; rather, the scores are derived from people’s own evaluations of their lives, specifically their responses to the Cantril ladder life-evaluation question, in the same way that epidemiologists estimate the impact of lifestyle choices like smoking, exercise, and diet on life expectancy.
As part of the annual International Day of Happiness celebration, the World Happiness Report is typically published on or around March 20.
The Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, with assistance from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford, and the Helping and Happiness Lab at Simon Fraser University, contributes to the World Happiness Report alongside the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Editors Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, Lara B. Aknin, and Shun Wang join founding editors John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey D. Sachs on the staff. Production Editor Sharon Paculor oversees and organizes all activities regarding the report.
What factors most affect happiness around the world?
Overall happiness can be used to gauge the well-being of society, and it’s also just one way to judge how effective a government is in providing for its people.
In some cases, countries with higher levels of happiness report lower crime rates than those that have lower levels. The factors that affect whether or not citizens are happy vary between countries based on culture and history.
However, the following metrics have been used for the World Happiness Report.
GDP per capita
GDP per capita is a measure of the total output of a country divided by its population. It’s a rough approximation of material prosperity, but it shouldn’t be considered an exact indicator of happiness or well-being.
GDP per capita is not perfect. It does not account for income distribution (whether rich or poor people make up the bulk of your population), nor does it capture other aspects that contribute to happiness, such as education level and health care quality.
But when comparing countries with similar levels of development, GDP per capita can be used as a proxy for measuring how happy people are in each place on average. While far from a perfect measure, it is a good place to start when looking at how different countries stack up against each other.
Social support is one of the most important factors in determining happiness. Support from interpersonal connections, whether from work, college, church, or community, can have a measurable impact on your life, even if you’re not aware of it.
More than a third of American adults (36%) in a national survey done by Harvard University admitted that they felt lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time” or “all the time” in the four weeks before the poll, indicating severe loneliness.
Of those, 61% were between the ages of 18 and 25, and 51% were moms of young children.
According to the study, since the pandemic broke out, 43% of young adults have noticed an increase in their feelings of isolation.
Half of the young adults who responded to the poll of social isolation said that in the preceding two weeks, no one had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared for.”
There is a strong correlation between loneliness, anxiety, and depression in young adults. Sixty-three percent of people in this age range show substantial signs of anxiety or depression, according to a separate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poll.
Healthy life expectancy
Healthy life expectancy is the number of years a person can expect to live in good health, based on the current mortality rates for that country.
Healthy life expectancy has been rising steadily across all countries since 1990, with some exceptions such as regions in conflict.
According to the World Health Organization, from 2000 to 2019, life expectancy in the world grew by over 6 years, from 66.8 to 73.4.
The decline in mortality rates has contributed more to the 8% increase in healthy life expectancy from 58.3 in 2000 to 63.7 in 2019 than the reduction in years lived with handicap. So, while life expectancy has increased to 6.6 years, healthy life expectancy has only risen by 5.4 years.
The measure of healthy life expectancy is a good indicator of how well health systems are working, as it reflects the availability and effectiveness of healthcare services in a country.
It can also be used to monitor progress towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which include targets for reducing premature mortality from non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease by 2030.
Perception of corruption
Corruption is a major problem in many countries, and it affects the happiness of people living there.
Corruption can be defined as the misuse of power or resources for personal gain. It occurs when people in positions of authority take advantage of their position to get something for themselves or someone else without following rules or laws.
Corruption is often associated with bribery (giving money or gifts) but it can also include other forms of corruption such as extortion (taking something from someone by pressure, threats, or force), or the embezzlement or misuse of public funds.
The perception that there is widespread corruption in a country has also been found to lower life satisfaction levels among residents. Even when you’re not directly affected by corruption yourself, even knowing that others are experiencing this may affect your own wellbeing negatively.
Corruption is a global problem, but it seems to be more prevalent in some countries than others.
Freedom to make life choices
Freedom to make life choices is the degree of choice you have in how you spend your time and how you live your life. It is about having control over your own destiny, and it has a strong correlation with happiness.
Happiness is not just about external circumstances or material possessions. It is also about being able to make decisions that reflect who you are as a person, such as choosing whether or not to get married or start a family.
In countries where people feel they have little freedom in making these kinds of choices, their happiness levels tend to be low–but when they can make those decisions for themselves (i.e., when there is not too many restrictions), then their happiness can be much higher.
It is important to note that freedom does not mean lawlessness or anarchy, but it means giving people the ability to make decisions that reflect who they are as a person.
Generosity is a necessary ingredient for happiness. It is a habit that can be cultivated and practiced, but it also requires self-awareness and awareness of others.
When you are generous with your time, money or even just compliments, you are likely to experience greater happiness than if you had kept that generosity to yourself.
Research has shown that people who give more tend to be happier than those who don’t donate money or volunteer their services as often.
In fact, studies suggest that giving may have similar benefits as exercise: both activities improve mental health by increasing levels of dopamine (a feel-good chemical) in the brain–and they both seem effective at reducing anxiety.
Studies conducted by psychologists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management tested the hypothesis that selfless giving produces more long-term happiness than giving to others.
One experiment gave 96 people $5 every day for five days, with half of them told to spend it on themselves and the other half told to give it to charity. They had to spend the money on the same item every day, whether it was putting a tip in a cafe’s tip jar or giving to charity online.
The results, which was published in Psychological Science, indicated that the participants’ happiness did not decrease as they gave regularly to others, and that the joy they received from giving to others on the fifth day was exactly as intense as the joy they felt from giving to others on the first day.
This may be obvious. As we all know from personal experience: being generous feels good. But there’s more than just one reason why generosity leads directly back into our own hearts; it also helps make society better overall too.
What are the happiest countries in the world in 2023?
The Nordic nations of Finland, Denmark, and Iceland continue to be the biggest winners in the World Happiness Report.
But the research also notes that despite numerous worldwide crises, such as the war in Ukraine, overall life satisfaction is “just as high as in the pre-pandemic years.”
According to the World Happiness Report 2023, Finland is the happiest country in the world for the sixth year in a row.
Norway ranks seventh (7.32), although a large number of other Nordic countries populate the top 10, including Denmark (2.55), Iceland (3.53), Sweden (6.40), and Denmark (7.40).
This list has been compiled by previous studies and expert opinions to show the traits common in the happiest countries in the world.
While the criteria for determining happiness vary from organization to organization, these countries are noteworthy in their ranking of being extremely happy with high levels of well-being, life satisfaction, and low rates of depression.
The United States comes in at number 15 and the United Kingdom at number 19, with the latter falling for the fourth year in a row. Zimbabwe (ranking last), Sierra Leone (ranking second last), Lebanon (ranking third last), and Afghanistan (ranking last) all had happiness levels of 3.20 or lower.
The index has been criticized for a number of alleged flaws, however. Some may question the use of the term “happiness” and instead suggest that, at least in the case of Finland, the phrase “satisfaction with their lives” is more appropriate.
While the Nordic countries ranked highest in terms of GDP per capita and lack of oppression, a Finnish author wrote in 2018 that countries in Latin America like Paraguay and Guatemala would be considered the happiest if the index was based on the amount of positive emotion people experience.
Similarly, countries in Africa like Togo and Senegal would rank higher if the index was based on whether citizens perceive their lives as “measurably better.”
Scores for the 2023 World Happiness Ranking were calculated by averaging data from 2020 and 2022. Despite Covid, the war in Ukraine, and increases in oil prices and living costs, many countries’ populations maintained or even increased their levels of goodwill toward one another.
For the sixth time in a row, this Nordic country has been named the world’s happiest. Finland’s final score (7.804) is little lower than it was last year (7.821), but it is still well ahead of the pack.
Denmark’s total score of 7.586 places it in second place, same as it did last year. The land of hygge is also living proof that a high tax rate need not be accompanied by widespread discontent.
Denmark has the highest personal income tax rate in Europe at over 56%, but its generous social welfare system—which includes free universal healthcare and education—seems to more than compensate for this.
The Land of Fire and Ice is not just one of the world’s happiest places, but also one of the safest. With a gender gap reduction of over 90%, the country ranks first in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2022.
Why are the Icelandic people so cheerful? Affluence, economic security, honesty, free education, and a sense of community are just a few of the benefits of living in such a prosperous society. Having easy access to some of the world’s most breathtaking natural environments also plays a role.
Israel’s rise to fourth place this year is the most notable shift in the rankings since the report’s inception in 2012.
The rapid economic growth and GDP per capita increase seen in the country after COVID provides the explanation, say experts. Statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also show that Israelis have a great quality of life and a long average lifespan.
With a score of 7.403, the Netherlands maintains its fifth place from last year. In addition to the country’s unending tulip fields (which make us happy), the most recent assessment from the International Monetary Fund lauded the Netherlands for its resilient and powerful recovery compared to the rest of the EU.
As an added bonus, the Dutch have rediscovered their joy thanks to their prosperous society and its many positive attributes.
Sweden is now ranked sixth, up one spot from last year. Deaths from COVID-19 were greater than in other Nordic countries, although overall the country did better than it did previous year.
Life expectancy is higher in Sweden than in any other country in the OECD because of the country’s low levels of air and environmental pollution, second only to Finland.
Sweden has a high employment rate and a very high percentage of gender equality (over 80%), all of which contribute to the great quality of life there.
It’s not hard to see why Norway is widely regarded as a pleasant country to live in. Norway consistently ranks among the world’s ten happiest nations due to its high standard of living, low corruption, high income, and extensive social safety net.
Fjords, mountains, lush woods, lakes, and regular glimpses of the northern lights mean that people rarely have to go far to find a peaceful place to unwind and rejuvenate.
Despite a four-place drop from previous year, Switzerland continues to be home to some of the world’s happiest (and healthiest) people because of its low crime rate, high GDP per capita, and gorgeous mountain landscape that welcomes recreation throughout the year.
The World Happiness Report states that the Swiss link “prosociality,” such as volunteering and charitable giving, to high levels of life happiness.
Last year, Luxembourg entered the list of the world’s 10 happiest countries at number six, but by 2023, it had fallen to number nine with a score of 7.228.
Although it is one of the tiniest and least populous European countries (slightly smaller than Rhode Island), Luxembourg has one of the highest per capita incomes of any country in the world.
The locals (half of whom are immigrants) are generally happier than people in other places because of the low crime rate, high levels of public trust, and cultural diversity.
New Zealand, as it did last year, ranks tenth on the list of the happiest countries in the world. Since the country’s reopening in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic in April 2022, tourism has been booming, allowing the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels and in some cases even exceed them.
Even city dwellers in New Zealand can enjoy the country’s wonderful beaches, lakes, and wineries, thanks to the country’s high GDP per capita. In addition, many indicators of well-being in the country, such as education, health, and civic involvement, rank above the OECD average.
What about other countries?
There are two aspects that have been included in every World Happiness Report to date. First, there is still a lot of consistency in how people in different countries rate their lives from year to year, and because the rankings are based on a three-year average, there is information carried forward from one year to the next.
For the sixth year in a row, Finland has topped the rankings with a score that much outpaced the competition. With a 95% confidence interval that includes positions 2 and 4, Denmark maintains its current 2nd place.
For the other countries in the top 20, the confidence regions for their positions span between five and ten different countries. Due to a smaller sample size, Iceland ranks third but has a confidence interval that spans from second to seventh.
Israel has risen from ninth to fourth place since last year, with a range of second to eighth place within which to be confident. The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland occupy places five through eight, respectively. New Zealand and Luxembourg round out the top ten.
As in the previous year, Austria and Australia come in at 11th and 12th, respectively, with both countries falling anywhere between the 8th and 16th spots. Canada comes in second, having climbed two spots from its previous record low position.
The next four spots are held by countries that are all firmly within the top twenty, as evidenced by the rank ranges: Ireland, the United States, Germany, and Belgium.
Taking spots 18-20 on the list are the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania. Nineteen of the top twenty countries from this year also made the list last year, demonstrating the consistency with which these nations feature in the top twenty.
With the exception of being ranked 52nd in 2017, this year Lithuania has climbed gradually to be ranked 20th.
Except at the very top and very bottom, the three-year average scores are close enough to one another that significant variances are discovered only across country pairs that are in some cases far apart in the rankings. The ranges of rankings for each country demonstrate this.
Even while the top countries tend to cluster together, there is still a wide gap between them and the lowest countries.
There is a 0.40 point difference between those in first and fifth place on the national life evaluation scale, and another 0.28 points between those in fifth and tenth. As a result, the difference between first and tenth places is only 0.70 points.
In comparison, the range of scores among the bottom 10 countries is 2.1 points wider. Afghanistan, in bottom place, and Lebanon, in second to last, have very distinct ranks from each other and from all higher countries, as shown by the range estimations.
The 95% range for some countries in the center of the worldwide list exceeds 25 ranks, indicating that the gaps become narrower and the ranges bigger as one moves up the scale.
While there has been some stability in the top scores, there have been numerous noteworthy shifts among the remaining countries. Many countries have seen large changes in average scores, and hence in country rankings.
Each country’s population, not just citizens or natives, is used to calculate the scores. In the 2018 World Happiness Report, the happiness rankings of native-born and non-native people in each country were compared and saw little to no difference.
Among the 20 happiest countries in that report, the average happiness of the locally born was around 0.2 points greater than that of the foreign-born, suggesting a footprint effect following migration and a tendency for migrants to go to happier countries.
Some of the data originate from the same respondents as the life evaluations, which may mean that they are determined by the same factors, adding another layer of caution to the conclusions.
Because variances in temperament and background tend to cancel out at the national level, such a finding is less likely when comparing national averages.
To further ensure that the results are not significantly skewed by using the same respondents to report life evaluations, social support, freedom, generosity, and corruption, the research tested the robustness of its procedure by randomly splitting respondents within each country into two groups.
The research next looked at whether or not the other half of the sample’s average life assessments could be described by the first half’s average values of social support, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.
As predicted, the coefficients for all four variables decreased significantly. However, the shifts were moderate (between 1% and 5%), and they did not reach statistical significance.
The model provides a reasonable explanation for average regional, global, and global-scale life evaluations.
Mean life ratings in Latin American countries are still much higher than predicted by the model (by around 0.5 on a 0 to 10 scale). Different aspects of family and social life in Latin American countries have been cited as causes for this variation.
The research did find some evidence that East Asian countries’ average life evaluations are below predictions, albeit only modestly and not statistically significant. It has been hypothesized that this reflects, at least in part, cultural differences in how individuals evaluate and report their own quality of life.
Whether or not these regional disparities were accounted for, the findings about the relative relevance of the six determinants remain mostly unchanged.
Globally, life satisfaction ratings are holding steady at impressively high levels, with averages in the COVID-19 years of 2020-2022 being virtually identical to those in the pre-pandemic years of 2017-2019.
For the sixth year in a row, Finland has held the top spot. Only Lithuania joined the top 20 this year, jumping more than 30 spots from 2017.
Average life ratings in war-torn Afghanistan and Lebanon are still more than five points worse (on a scale extending from 0 to 10) than in the ten happiest countries in the poll.
This year’s report examines the distribution of happiness along three dimensions. The disparity in satisfaction levels between the wealthiest and the poorest segments of society is the first.
Comparing countries where virtually everyone is very dissatisfied with those where almost nobody is, the research finds a rather narrow gap.
People tend to be happier in countries where the happiness gap is narrower. Inequalities in happiness have been mostly steady worldwide, while they are widening in Africa.
The percentage of the population who give their lives a rating of 4 or less, and the percentage who give their lives a rating of 3 or less, are both indicators of how miserable people feel. There was a small decrease in both indicators worldwide during the three COVID-19 years.
The following section of the chapter provides four case studies that illustrate how trust and social support can sustain joy in the face of adversity.
Deaths caused by COVID. In 2020 and 2021, countries working to reduce community transmission saw decreases in mortality rates without corresponding increases in other costs.
However, not many nations followed suit, allowing for the emergence of new strains; by 2022, Omicron rendered eradication impossible. Updated modeling reveals that trust is still connected with lower death rates, and overall deaths over the three years are still considerably lower in the eliminator nations, even though policy measures, infection rates, and death rates are now very similar across all countries.
The most common trends that could be gleaned from the report is as follows:
Benevolence. The global uptick in generosity in 2020 and 2021 stands out as one of the most notable trends in the World Happiness Report 2022. The frequency of acts of kindness in 2022 is still roughly 25% higher than it was before the pandemic.
Russia and Ukraine. In 2022, citizens of both countries gained more faith in their respective governments. However, Ukrainians were more optimistic than Russians.
In 2022, all regions of Ukraine saw a complete collapse of support for Russian leadership. In 2020 and 2021, both nations contributed to the worldwide rise in generosity.
In 2022, generosity skyrocketed in Ukraine while plunging in Russia. A far stronger feeling of collective purpose, kindness, and faith in Ukrainian leadership helped keep September 2022 life assessments in Ukraine higher than they had been following the 2014 annexation.
Encouragement from one’s peers. In seven significant countries across six worldwide regions, new data demonstrate that good social ties and support were twice as widespread as loneliness in 2022.
They also have a substantial correlation with people’s overall levels of happiness in their social lives. The significance of these healthy social ties contributes to an already robust explanation for optimistic life assessments even in the face of adversity.
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