Which Countries Have the Happiest People?

Where we live has a clear and convincing impact on our overall well-being, including our ability to become and stay happy.  Each country has an individual culture and social order.  These influence how individuals perceived themselves and their role in the larger society.   Country of residents influences our opportunities for creative growth and interpersonal connections (both of which are vital for happiness.)

The Gallup polling organization has recently completed the most extensive survey research to learn which countries have the happiest people and why.  In this article I have collected the major news stories about this research, Gallup’s own analysis, and the original journal article.   Results are particularly troubling for the US since we do not fare very well in the rankings (related to our poor performance in education and health care.)  The top countries include several from Scandinavia and Central America.  Click below to read all about this important and innovative research.

The World’s Happiest Countries by Francesca Levy, Forbes – 07.14.10

The five happiest countries in the world–Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands–are all clustered in the same region, and all enjoy high levels of prosperity.  “The Scandinavian countries do really well,” says Jim Harter, a chief scientist at Gallup, which developed the poll. “One theory why is that they have their basic needs taken care of to a higher degree than other countries. When we look at all the data, those basic needs explain the relationship between income and well-being.”

Quantifying happiness isn’t an easy task. Researchers at the Gallup World Poll went about it by surveying thousands of respondents in 155 countries, between 2005 and 2009, in order to measure two types of well-being.  First they asked subjects to reflect on their overall satisfaction with their lives, and ranked their answers using a “life evaluation” score between 1 and 10. Then they asked questions about how each subject had felt the previous day. Those answers allowed researchers to score their “daily experiences”–things like whether they felt well-rested, respected, free of pain and intellectually engaged.  Subjects that reported high scores were considered “thriving.” The percentage of thriving individuals in each country determined our rankings. …

There’s more to happiness than riches. The Gallup study showed that while income undoubtedly influenced happiness, it did so for a particular kind of well-being–the kind one feels when reflecting on his or her own successes and prospects for the future. Day-to-day happiness is more likely to be associated with how well one’s psychological and social needs are being met, and that’s harder to achieve with a paycheck.

Take Costa Rica. The sixth-happiest country in the world, and the happiest country in the Americas, it beat out richer countries like the United States. That’s because social networks in Costa Rica are tight, allowing individuals to feel happy with their lot, regardless of financial success.  “Costa Rica ranks really high on social and psychological prosperity,” says Harter. “It’s probably things systemic to the society that make people over time develop better relationships, and put more value on relationships. Daily positive feelings rank really high there.”

Inhabitants of some rich countries are bound to feel happier. But happiness is elusive to define, and money isn’t the only thing that influences it. Harter explains that the more abstract sense of happiness to which wealth contributes has a different effect on one’s life than daily happiness.  “Each of us is two different people. We evaluate our lives periodically; we sit back and reflect and summarize things that have gone on in our lives to date,” Harter says. “Another side is how you experience things daily. Daily experience affects your stress and your psychology. How you evaluate your life affects your decisions. It’s important to think about how you can leverage that well-being.”


Money can buy one form of happiness, massive global study concludes By Rob Stein. Washington Post  – July 1, 2010

Money, it turns out, really can buy you happiness — or at least one form of it, according to the biggest study to examine the relationship between income and well-being around the world.

Pulling in the big bucks makes people more likely to say they are happy with their lives overall — whether they are young or old, male or female, or living in cities or remote villages, the survey of more than 136,000 people in 132 countries found.  But the survey also showed that a key element of what many people consider happiness — positive feelings — is much more strongly affected by factors other than cold, hard cash, such as feeling respected, being in control of your life and having friends and family to rely on in a pinch.

“Yes, money makes you happy — we see the effect of income on life satisfaction is very strong and virtually ubiquitous and universal around the world,” said Ed Diener, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois who led the study. “But it makes you more satisfied than it makes you feel good. Positive feelings are less affected by money and more affected by the things people are doing day to day.”

Previous studies had suggested that money was associated with happiness. But the relationship appeared weak, and earlier work tended to focus on individual countries and global evaluations of life without parsing out the effects on specific positive and negative emotions or examining differences across nations.

The new survey — the first large international study to differentiate between overall life satisfaction and day-to-day emotions — makes that crucial distinction, allowing researchers to explore the elusive concept of happiness in much greater nuance. …

Day-to-day positive feelings depend a lot on other things, which also turn out to be fairly universal and therefore help clarify what makes people content, several researchers said.  “The thing I think is exciting about this is money can make you feel better in a limited way,” said Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But positive feelings like enjoyment and laughing can do a whole lot more for people. They can help people grow and learn and become a more resilient, better version of yourself.”

The new survey, dubbed the “first representative sample of planet Earth,” was conducted by Gallup and involved detailed questioning in 2005 and 2006 of 136,839 residents age 15 and older. The samples in each country were designed to be nationally representative and represent about 96 percent of the world’s population.

“What makes this paper so important is the sample is so huge and covered the entire world,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside. “It’s really interesting that if you look at countries that are so different — from rural villagers to people living in a city like Stockholm — they are all about the same in terms of what makes people happy.” …

Life satisfaction was directly and strongly correlated with income, with the impact felt equally among all ages, men and women, and rural villagers and urban dwellers in virtually every corner of the globe, the researchers reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Although money also influenced emotions, the effect was much weaker. Both positive and negative emotions tended to be affected much more in relation to other psychological and social factors, such as feeling respected, having autonomy, strong social support and working at a fulfilling job. …

The findings “are really significant” because “we are finally able to answer the big questions, such as ‘What is a good society?’ ” Shigehiro Oishi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in an e-mail. “If the goal of a society is to raise the daily enjoyment of its citizens, then, it seems critical to devise ways to increase the relational wealth of nations (e.g., stronger social network).”

Country Satisfaction Linked to Life Satisfaction, February 23, 2011

Gallup is constantly searching for the answer to what it is that makes for a good, productive life. Gallup has already uncovered that being highly engaged in your job, spending 6 to 7 hours socializing per day, and exercising 5 to 6 days per week are all factors that make a person more likely to be thriving in their life.

Now, Gallup’s global surveys reveal that the more satisfied a person is with their country, the more likely he or she is to be satisfied with their life. To be specific, the higher people rate their country on a ladder scale, the higher they rate their lives using the same scale. The relationship is even stronger for people who have low incomes or live in relatively poorer nations. …

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, is based on Gallup’s world polls of 1,000 people in each of 128 countries.  Gallup Senior Scientist Ed Diener believes the findings advance the study of wellbeing as they go beyond previous research, which has focused on the individual, and show that societal characteristics can also be important to happiness. “What is more, societal characteristics become even more important to happiness when one’s life is not going so well,” Diener said in the press release, connecting this to why nationalism, sports team loyalty, and religion can be particularly strong during tough times.

The study also discovered that the link between national satisfaction and life satisfaction is stronger in non-Western nations than in Western ones, concluding that this is due to the importance of individualism in Western countries versus the value of the group in non-Western places.  The bottom line, though, is that having a sense of pride and contentment with one’s country may lead to a perceived higher quality of life, which the authors’ say is useful information for developing better-quality-of-life improvement strategies, especially for impoverished nations.

Global Wellbeing Surveys Find Nations Worlds Apart by Cynthia English March 25, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Gallup’s global snapshot of wellbeing reveals a vast divide that underscores the diversity of economic development challenges around the world. The percentage who are “thriving” ranges from a high of 82% in Denmark to a low of 1% in Togo.  Ten percent or lower are “thriving” in 41 of 155 countries or areas

Using data collected in 155 countries or areas since 2005, Gallup classifies respondents as “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering,” according to how they rate their current and future lives on a ladder scale based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale.

Adults within each of the four major regions are often worlds apart in how they evaluate their lives. Africa has the lowest wellbeing; no country in this region has a thriving percentage higher than 25%. In fact, of the 41 countries where the thriving percentage is 10% or lower, more than half are in Africa. Conversely, in the Americas, where “thriving” is highest, the only countries with less than a quarter thriving are Cuba (24%) and Haiti (4%). “Thriving” in the Americas is highest in Costa Rica (63%) and Canada (62%), followed closely by Panama (58%), Brazil (58%), and the United States (57%).

There is a clear wellbeing divide between the wealthier countries of northern, western, and central Europe and some poorer countries within eastern and southern Europe. Self-reported wellbeing is lowest in Bulgaria (6%) and highest in Denmark (82%) and Finland (75%). In several of the largest European economies, like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, wellbeing falls roughly in the middle. Similar disparities are evident in Asia. Thriving is 60% or higher in New Zealand (63%), Israel (62%), and Australia (62%) and 10% or lower in 11 nations. Cambodia rounds out the bottom with 3% “thriving.”



Subjective Well-Being and National Satisfaction:  Findings From a Worldwide Survey By Mike Morrison, Louis Tay and Ed Diener. Psychological Science February 2011 vol. 22 no. 2 166-171.

The following information is abstracted from the article (Click Title Above to Download PDF)


The country where you live has inescapable consequences for your life. It affects your job opportunities, the quality of your health care, and your risk of becoming a victim of crime or war. Yet people who experience difficult lives might still express high life satisfaction. Why might this be? The research reported in this article provides an intriguing possible answer: These individuals may experience personal satisfaction with their country, which overflows into their life satisfaction despite objectively poor societal conditions. Our examination of a worldwide representative poll provides insight into how a larger group identity might benefit individual subjective well-being (SWB). …

The neglect of the relationship between life satisfaction and national satisfaction has left a gap in the SWB literature. The contributions of superordinate groups, such as nations, and individuals’ evaluations of their society to SWB have been largely overlooked. This article presents telling findings that close this gap and bring together elements of identity, self, culture, monetary wealth, and mobility. Using a representative worldwide sample, we investigated the power of national satisfaction to predict life satisfaction and compared the contributions of national satisfaction and satisfaction in other domains to life satisfaction. We also explored the extent to which there are regional, cultural, and economic differences in the relationship between national satisfaction and life satisfaction and between other domain satisfactions and life satisfaction.

Past theory and research suggest that national satisfaction could play an important role in shaping well-being. Social identity theory posits that group memberships are a crucial component of individuals’ identity and can have a powerful influence on feelings of self-worth. The more central a given group membership is to an individual’s identity, the more that group is tied to his or her well-being. … Given that one’s country is a salient component among one’s multiple identities, we hypothesized that people feel better when they perceive their country to be doing well.

Social identity theory predicts a strong positive relationship between life satisfaction and national satisfaction, but other perspectives illuminate possible moderators of this relationship. National satisfaction may be particularly important if a person lives in poverty. Therefore, an impoverished individual who regards his or her country positively can use that as a consolation for an otherwise challenging life. By contrast, where more people have good jobs and good health, feelings about country may be less important to SWB than more personal matters are. Thus, we predicted that the relation between national satisfaction and life satisfaction would be more positive in poorer than in richer nations. Similarly, we expected the relation between national satisfaction and life satisfaction would be stronger among people with low personal income than those who are relatively rich.

We also expected a differential relationship between national and life satisfaction along cultural lines. On average, individuals from Western European cultures tend to view the self as independent, separate, and unique from others.  In contrast, individuals from East Asian cultures tend to view the self as interdependent and embedded in a set of relationships. In line with this difference, the relation between self and life satisfaction has been found to be stronger for people living in individualist cultures compared with those living in collectivist cultures.  Conversely, relationship harmony predicts SWB better in collectivist cultures than in individualist ones.  Given the greater importance placed on how the group is doing in collectivist cultures, we predicted that national satisfaction would be more strongly related to well-being in non-Western than in Western cultures.

Finally, recent research has shown that the collective self is more central to identity and well-being among nonmobile individuals (those not planning to move) than among frequent movers. Mobile people tend to be more individualistic and less loyal to where they live. Therefore, we expected that the relation between national satisfaction and life satisfaction would be stronger among nonmobile than among mobile individuals. Our worldwide sample of 128 countries created an excellent opportunity to test these hypotheses and further examine moderators of the relation between life satisfaction and national satisfaction.


Our research is the most extensive study of the relationship between national satisfaction and SWB to date and has important implications for understanding life satisfaction and the self. Our results revealed that national satisfaction is a strong predictor of life satisfaction, even when controlling for many other variables linked to SWB in earlier research. … We found that the relationship between national satisfaction and life satisfaction is strongest in the poorest countries of the world, among individuals with the least income, and among individuals with the fewest household conveniences. …

If people believe that at least one aspect of the self is doing well, their focus may drift toward this aspect when they assess their life satisfaction. Social identity theory predicts that the more central a given group membership is to one’s identity, the more relevant that group becomes in one’s judgment of self-worth. Individuals in poverty may elevate their nation to a more central component of their social identity, thus making it more relevant in judging their quality of life. This might explain why ratings of national satisfaction are higher on average than ratings of life satisfaction among relatively poor individuals and those living in poorer countries. …

We also found a stronger relationship between national satisfaction and life satisfaction in non-Western countries than in Western countries. This is in line with the greater importance placed on the group outside more individualistic, Western nations. … National satisfaction matters more for the well-being of people who plan to stay put in their locale than for the well-being of those who intend to move elsewhere.

Another telling pattern is that satisfaction with health, standard of living, and job matters more for life satisfaction among individuals with more household conveniences and those in richer, Western nations. Such people may pursue material goods because of societal standards or expectations. For those for whom the possession of material objects weighs more heavily, standard of living plays a stronger role in life satisfaction.  Our results thus provide further evidence that rich, Western and poor, non-Western individuals construe well-being in different ways, with the former focused more on personal, proximate matters and the latter focused more on societal matters. …

Our findings open the door to new avenues of research. Further studies examining key moderators and mediators can enhance understanding of when and where national satisfaction will have the strongest relationship with well-being. We also recommend greater exploration of the related concept of patriotism and its relationship with well-being.

Governments and institutions actively attempt to instill bonds and national satisfaction with national anthems, pledges of allegiance, and other techniques. It is crucial to understand the consequences of such actions. Our research indicates that to the extent that these exercises make you feel your country is doing well, they may improve your sense of well-being. The strength of that relationship, however, depends on where you live, how long you plan to live there, and what your standard of living is.

U.S. Is Richest Nation, But Not Happiest By Jeanna Bryner (LiveScience): 01 July 2010

The United States may be the richest nation on Earth, a new study indicates, but it’s not the happiest.    The new analysis of Gallup World Poll data suggests, however, that trying to compare the happiness of one nation to another is not straightforward.

Rather, there are two major categories of happiness: overall life satisfaction; and more moment-to-moment enjoyment of life. And while overall satisfaction of life is strongly tied to income, meaning richer nations and individuals have more of this overall bliss, how much one enjoys life (by measures such as laughing and smiling) depends more on social and psychological needs being met. These include having social support and using one’s abilities, as opposed to sitting at a mind-numbing job.

While Northern European and Anglo societies are currently most successful in the economic area, Latin American societies proved to be relatively high in social-psychological well-being. Sierra Leone scored consistently low, but other nations showed divergent rankings across the measures. For instance, Russia and South Korea had substantially lower scores for meeting social-psychological needs and in positive feelings than for income.

Some economists think money increases happiness at the low end of the pay scale as it helps people meet their basic needs, but doesn’t do much once a person is lifted out of poverty. This new study suggests the link between money and happiness goes beyond basic needs. While the steepest rise in overall well-being with money occurred in the poorer individuals and nations, there was still a bump in overall happiness at the higher socioeconomic status regions.

“Money is an object that many or most people desire, and pursue during the majority of their waking hours,” Diener and his colleagues write.  Since most people want money, they use their financial success as a measure of overall success and a reference for how “good” their lives are.  The study also showed the income-happiness link was tied to a person’s ownership of luxury conveniences and their satisfaction with standard of living.

Overall satisfaction with life went up with both personal and national income, suggesting societal circumstances play an important role in happiness. But positive feelings, which were slightly higher in relation to higher income, were much more strongly tied to feeling respected, having autonomy and social support and working at a fulfilling job.  “Some of the nation rankings are indeed surprising, at least if we assumed that money was the only type of wealth,” Diener said. “How do some mid-level nations in terms of income, such as Costa Rica, do so well? And conversely, why do some relatively rich nations such as South Korea do less well than expected? In part, because of the quality of social relationships.”

Of course there were places that got either mostly stellar or mostly dismal happiness marks. No. 1 in overall satisfaction, Denmark also came in at No. 7 for positive feelings. Impoverished nations in Africa generally scored low on both happiness measures.  While Northern European and Anglo societies are currently most successful in the economic area, Latin American societies proved to be relatively high in social-psychological well-being. Sierra Leone scored consistently low, but other nations showed divergent rankings across the measures. For instance, Russia and South Korea had substantially lower scores for meeting social-psychological needs and in positive feelings than for income.

Some economists think money increases happiness at the low end of the pay scale as it helps people meet their basic needs, but doesn’t do much once a person is lifted out of poverty. This new study suggests the link between money and happiness goes beyond basic needs. While the steepest rise in overall well-being with money occurred in the poorer individuals and nations, there was still a bump in overall happiness at the higher socioeconomic status regions.  “Money is an object that many or most people desire, and pursue during the majority of their waking hours,” Diener and his colleagues write.  Since most people want money, they use their financial success as a measure of overall success and a reference for how “good” their lives are.  The study also showed the income-happiness link was tied to a person’s ownership of luxury conveniences and their satisfaction with standard of living.

Only 6 Percent Happy, Survey Finds – China Daily – Mar 03, 2011

BEIJING -(China Daily)- Only 6 percent of Chinese people see themselves as happy, despite the government’s efforts to improve the population’s sense of happiness, a survey showed on Wednesday.  The proportion was in stark contrast to Denmark, which topped another recent poll. There, 82 percent described themselves as happy in a sampling carried out by Gallup World Poll. That poll ranked China 125th in a table of worldwide happiness. …

The china.com.cn research shows that nearly 40 percent of Chinese people believe that happiness is determined by how wealthy a person is. The second most important factor is “psychological pressure”, which was tipped by 27 percent of respondents.  But it was not all bad news. About 36 percent of respondents said their lives had improved during the past five years.  Those living in first-tier cities were the least contented, feeling more pressure because of high-price housing and traffic congestion than their counterparts in smaller towns and cities. …

At a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty following three decades of rapid economic growth, the government is trying to shift its focus from growth to enhancing social fairness and a “sharing of the fruits of reform and development among all people”.

Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the issues “essential to people’s happiness”, which included ensuring social equality and justice, when he answered questions raised by Web users on Sunday.  Wen pledged to improve people’s sense of security and their confidence in the future, saying “improving people’s livelihood” was the key issue in the country’s next five-year plan.

Zhang Lifan, a well-known expert on China’s modern history, noted that it is imperative that the government redistributes the fruits of economic development so more people benefit because the widening wealth gap is “tearing society apart”.  According to a World Bank report, the Gini coefficient for China is now close to 0.5, which points to an unequal distribution of income that could lead to social unrest. On the Gini coefficient, 0.4 is considered as the threshold of serious inequality.

Liu Shanying, a political science researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that in addition to the wealth gap between rich and poor some people feel unhappy because they do not feel respected.  “The feeling of being respected, being free of pain and intellectually engaged, among others, all contribute to an individual’s feeling of happiness,” Liu said.

Does Money Buy Happiness? Gallup Checks It Out — Worldwide By Walter Russell Mead March 27, 2010

On Gallup’s data, the relationship between money and happiness seems mixed.  Regionally, Africa has the lowest percentage of people who are thriving, but the Americas (including Central and South America) are doing better than Europe by this measure.  Within the Americas, more Costa Ricans than US citizens say they are thriving (63 percent versus 57 percent), but Haiti reports the lowest scores in the Americas, with only 4 percent thriving there.  (The Haitian data dates from well before the last earthquake.) …

Some of the numbers aren’t surprising.  The French are relatively morose despite their high standard of living with only 35 percent thriving, lower than Italy (39 percent) and Germany (43 percent). Egyptians (10 percent) are unhappier than Saudis (27 percent).  Israelis at 63 percent are much happier than their neighbors; Syria is at 10 percent, Iraq at 11 and Jordan is at 24. …

There are two numbers which stand out and should provide us all with food for thought.  Only 9 percent of Indians and 10 percent of Chinese say they are thriving; between them, the world’s two most populous countries account for almost a third of the human population.  This has a lot of implications for the way the people in those countries will feel about both their domestic systems and the international system in the years to come.  As a species, we have a long way to go, however happy they are in Denmark and Costa Rica.

Another way to look at the data is to ask where the dynamite is: in which countries do the highest percentage of the population tell pollsters they are “suffering”?  By this measure, the unhappiest place in the world is Burundi, where 40% describe themselves in this way.  Bulgaria at 36 percent is second-worst.  Haiti and Georgia come next at 35 percent; again, Haiti’s numbers would likely be significantly higher post-quake. Hungary (34 percent), Armenia (33), Macedonia (32) and Togo (31) round out the list of countries in which more than 30 percent of the population is suffering.  Some of these countries are desperately poor, but others are those where the economic crisis has hit particularly hard or where rising expectations have been frustrated.

A larger group of countries report that more than 20 percent of the population is suffering; these, along with those with ‘misery’ scores above 30 percent, may be the ones to watch for potential explosions.  By this measure, Pakistan (at 23 percent) is only slightly worse off than India (21); ensuring domestic tranquility could be a difficult exercise in both countries going forward.  By this measure, European countries at risk include Ukraine (26), Russia (23), and Latvia (25).  In the Middle East the worry list includes Yemen and Syria at 24 percent each; disturbingly, 23 percent of Bahrainis say they are suffering, along with 20 percent of Turks.  In Africa, places to watch include Uganda (23) and Tanzania (24).  Sierra Leone (23) and Rwanda (22) are worryingly high.  Zimbabwe by this measure looks relatively well off, with only 17 percent reporting that they are suffering.

These numbers should be taken with liberal sprinkles of salt.  Culture and expectations vary dramatically around the world; there is no other way to explain the fact that more Nigerians say they are better off (and fewer that they are suffering) than people in either Turkey or China.  It is also true that a number of factors affect what answers people give pollsters; only a brave 2 percent in glorious Myanmar told pollsters they were suffering.  I suspect that North Korea would be the happiest country in the world if the survey were carried out by a state-licensed polling firm.

Categories: Happiness | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

Post navigation

7 thoughts on “Which Countries Have the Happiest People?

  1. I discovered your blog’s link posted by a friend on Facebook. Thanks for putting useful information on the net. It’s tough to come by these things these days.

  2. I am really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one these days..

  3. Good web site! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well written. I am wondering how I could be notified when a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS feed which must do the trick! Have a great day!

  4. I stumbled upon your internet site by accident and i’m so happy I came across it.

  5. Very clear web site , thankyou for this post.

  6. I like this website very much, Its a rattling nice post to read and obtain information.

  7. Hiya, I’m really glad I have found this info. Today bloggers publish just about gossips and net and this is actually annoying. A good web site with exciting content, that’s what I need. Thanks for keeping this web-site, I will be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Cant find it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: