What Makes a Country Happy?

I don’t think I know any two people who have the exact same definition of happiness. I think it’s safe to say we have all considered the definition, what influences our own level of happiness, and qualities we recognize in people who we perceive to be happy. According to happify.com (fitting, right?) happiness is a combination of how generally satisfied you are with your life and how good you feel on a day to day basis. Individual happiness is subjective, and many would argue that when it comes to an individual’s level of happiness, perspective plays a huge role. Considering this, I wonder what makes certain countries happy as a whole, and what less happy nations can learn from them.

The World Happiness Report for 2015 found Switzerland to be the happiest country in the world, followed by, in order, Nordic favorites Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. So what is their key to happiness, besides a breathtaking landscape and world renowned chocolate? “Switzerland invests more in health, education and talent of its people than any other country in the world.” They have the best health care system in the world, the lowest spending on health care of developed nations and, consequently some of the healthiest people. The Swiss also know a thing or two about education, considering 86 percent of adults have the equivalent of a high school degree compared to the OECD average of 75 percent. This is probably because Switzerland is number one in the world for quality primary school education, and they have above average test scores in literacy, math, and science.

The Swiss are not just smart—they’re creative as well. Switzerland ranks number one globally for world innovation and encourages her people to create their own businesses. They’re huge on promoting the protection of intellectual property, made obvious by small and medium-sized enterprises making up 99 percent of the Swiss economy. The Swiss unemployment rate is only 4.4 percent and ranks 5th in economic freedom. All things considered, the Swiss are pretty happy because they are healthy, educated and encouraged by their government  to lead happy and productive lives.

The United States places 15th on the list of happiest countries, not an utter disappointment but a little anticlimactic for a country thought to be so great. And its not only the Swiss who are doing so well. Iceland, the second country on the list, has high respect for nature and consequently has the third lowest pollution index in the world. The third country on this list, Denmark, gives parents a total of 52 weeks of parental leave following the birth of a child, they consistently rank among the top ten countries in gender equality, and have the highest rate of democracy among 30 established democracies in the world, partially due to their 87.7 percent voting rate. And in Norway, which is fourth on the list, there is a law called “allemannsrett,” which protects all citizens’ rights to visit and explore all uncultivated land (compared to America where 133 national parks charge entrance fees)—an understandable formula for happiness considering Norway is damn gorgeous.

The takeaway here is that the happiest people live in countries which value health, equality, education and nature— a few things America is still trying to figure out how to prioritize. The top five happiest countries all have high-quality health care, low unemployment, an intrinsic cultural value of nature, and top-notch education systems. Happiness may be subjective, but I think it’s safe to say happiness thrives in places where illness is treated, virtually all children are in school, and access to sweeping forests, mountains and lakes is abundant. Happy individuals are born of happy communities. When it comes to feelings of subjective well-being, the most efficient mode of improvement is through providing objective benefits to all.


Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project. **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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