Saturday, August 05, 2006

A World of Happiness?

Not everyone is happy all the time, but it is apparent that some people are happier than others, on average. And it isn’t too surprising to find out that people in certain countries tend to be happier on the average than people in other countries.

A study by researchers at the University of Leicester in England compared 174 countries, using 100 different social and economic indexes, to come up with a happiness index. The researchers then listed the countries in order of happiness based on this index.

The happiest country in the world is Denmark. The least happy is Burundi in Africa. The United States came in fairly happy at number 23. The United Kingdom was only moderately happy with a ranking of 41.

The study found a correlation between how happy a person rated his or her life and three main variables. What affected happiness most was a country’s health care system, the gross domestic product per capita, and the educational system.

“There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy,” said study author Adrian White.

Of course, the researchers also concluded that there is a connection among these three variables as well. “The three predictor variables of health, wealth and education were also very closely associated with each other, illustrating the interdependence of these factors,” White said.

In general, happier countries tended to be more capitalistic. But the countries of the former Soviet Union are quite unhappy. Perhaps they are pining for the old dicatorship, or maybe they just haven’t gotten their new-found capitalism fine tuned enough yet.

Among the happiest 50 percent of the countries, there also seemed to be some correlation with religion. The top 10 happiest countries generally had a higher percentage of people who did not belong to any particular religion. Only about 25 percent of Denmark’s population believe in God, for example. Switzerland, Austria, and Iceland, which are among the top five happiest countries, also have a low rate of religousity.

The Scandinavian Countries, all in the top 10, are decidedly non-religious. And Canada, which ranked number 10 in happiness, has a far greater percentage of people who claim no religion than the U.S.

But it certainly isn’t a single factor that determines happiness. Japan, for example, ranked fairly high in the three leading factors with an average life expectancy of 82, a high degree of education and a relatively high GDP per capita. Yet the Japanese tend to be very unhappy. Japan ranked 90 in the study.

Communist countries tended to have fairly unhappy people, as would be expected. But it would be interesting to compare the happiness level of the former Soviet Union with what it used to be when it was a communist country.

The most unhappy people in the world, by far, are the African nations. The happiest country in the whole of Africa is Nambia, which ranked 74. The five most unhappy nations are in Africa.

Most Islamic countries in the Middle East are not happy at all. The exceptions are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait. Of those, only the UAE is happier on average than the U.S. with a ranking of 22.

The Leicester study was the first comprehensive study of its type. So it cannot be compared with any historical accounts of happiness.

It would also be fascinating to see how the happiness level of the U.S. changed as different presidents came into office. For example, were we as a nation happier when Clinton was in office or are we happier now with Bush?

I think I know how most Americans would answer that question.

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