Studies ranking nation’s satisfaction yield surprising results
Ode Editors | Jan/Feb 2007 issue
Three guesses on which nation shows the way forward to a happy global future. China, for its booming economy? The U.S., for its high standard of living? Italy, for its great food?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Vanuatu, a string of islands in the Pacific, leads the world in promoting satisfaction, according to the Happy Planet Index, a new measure of human progress created by Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation. Radical Economics (Summer 2006), the newsletter of the UK-based New Economics Foundation, reports that this nation of 250,000 people scored well in all three categories upon which the index was based: life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological sustainability.
Even more of a surprise was second-place Colombia, a country known mainly for bloody terrorists and cocaine traffickers. The top-ranking Western nation was the Mediterranean island of Malta in 40th place, just behind the Maldives. Austria was the next-highest Western nation, in 61st place, followed by Iceland in 64th, Switzerland in 65th, Italy in 66th and the Netherlands in 70th. Ukraine finished last among Western nations and Zimbabwe was ranked as the most unhappy place in the world. Bhutan, a Himalayan nation that has made promoting happiness a primary government policy, ranked 13th in the listings (see Ode, Dec. 2005).
Radical Economics explains that Vanuatu sprang to the top of the list because of a life expectancy close to Western nations, strong democratic traditions, careful conservation of its natural resources and a high degree of well-being reported by its citizens. In general, small island nations scored high in the Happy Planet Index because “isolation and relative vulnerability have encouraged adaptive and supportive forms of economic and social organization.” Central American and Caribbean countries also did well (see list).
The world’s leading economic powers fared only so-so in the rankings. High levels of personal alienation in wealthy countries may be one explanation but probably more significant is the Happy Planet Index’s use of the ecological-footprint measure, which calculates how many natural resources a nation consumes to maintain its standard of living. That certainly affected the relatively low scores of Japan (95th place), the UK (108th), Canada (111th), the U.S. (150th) and Russia (172nd).
But even when environmental factors are removed, the list of happiest nations is still full of surprises. The World Database of Happiness, compiled by Professor Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, lists Denmark as the place where people report being the happiest, followed by Colombia and Switzerland. The unhappiest nations, according to Veenhoven’s research, are Moldova, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
When happiness is seen from this more individualized perspective, based solely on people’s reported levels of satisfaction with life, European nations dominate the list, although Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala also rank in the top 10. Canada comes in 10th, the Netherlands 15th and the United States ties with New Zealand for 17th.
“The [World Database of Happiness] surveys reveal that happiness in the United States and Japan has been flat over the past 30 years but has risen in most West European countries,” note Kristine Enea and Dean LaTourrette, authors of Time Off: The Upside to Downtime. They believe Europe’s strong showing is the result of generous social policies, especially shorter workweeks and ample vacation time. But no matter how the research is analyzed, more workaholic cultures such as the U.S., as well as Britain and Japan, don’t rise to the top of the happiness list.
Happiest nations according to Happy Planet Index
1. Vanuatu (Pacific)
3. Costa Rica
4. Dominica (Caribbean)
Happiest nations according to World Database of Happiness
More information: Erasmus University, Rotterdam, www.eur.nl/fsw/research/happiness