The 25 countries with the happiest and most unhappy people

24 March 2016 5 min. read
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The search for happiness is one with a strong religious, cultural and philosophical significance. Happiness for some, comes after life – while for others, it is sought in the most complex arguments or the simplest tasks. Having a good roof over one's head, one's health, financial stability and freedom from violence, is for many sufficient to at least some kind of happiness. In a new UN report, the world’s happiest and least happy countries are identified, with Denmark on top and Syria and Burindi at the bottom. The UK comes in at number 23. The change in happiness between the past three years compared to the pre-crisis period is also considered, finding that the UK has seen its average happiness drop, while happiness is Greece and Egypt have plummeted.

To identify how happy the general population of countries in the world are, the UN, in its ‘World Happiness Report 2016’, analyses the Gallup World Poll of subjective happiness. The poll, which has been performed yearly since 2005, is taken across 157 countries, with 1,000 residents of each country responding each year. One of the major question posed by the poll asks respondents to evaluate their life in terms of a metaphorical ladder: “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you  personally feel you stand at this time?” This provides an 'overall life evaluation' of a country.

The total happiness score, which is ranked, is developed from a range of country specific statistics, such as GDP and average health, and the answer to a set of questions, for instance, social support is related to the binary question “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”. Two further metrics are also included: the ‘positive affect’, or the previous days’ positive emotional experiences of ‘laughter and enjoyment’, as well as ‘negative affect’, related to previous days’ ‘worry and sadness’. The various scores are all related to the ‘dystopia’ benchmark, which represents a fictional ‘least happy country on earth’, and this fictional country adds 2.33 to the total country score. The final piece of the puzzle is the ‘residual’ score, which is added to the dystopia measure; this score represents the difference between the ‘overall life evaluation’ and the combined scores of the various components of happiness – for some countries this adds to the total, and for some it detracts from it.

Top 25 and bottom 25 happiest places to find oneself
The top score goes to Denmark, with an average score over the past three years of 7.526. The country enjoys a strong economy, high levels of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make choices, generosity and a corruption free environment. Switzerland comes in second, with slightly higher economic benefits and slightly lower levels of generosity. The Nordic countries, the report highlights, perform particularly well – all within the top 10, and most within the top five. The Netherlands comes in at number seven, followed by New Zealand and Australia. The US, as the world’s largest economy, comes in at number 13 with a score of 7.104.

The UK comes in at number 23, boosting a strong economic performance, good levels of social support, relative freedom and considerable generosity – although it scores poorly on perceived corruption.

The least happy countries in the world are Burundi at 157, Syria at 156 and Togo at 155. Burundi is the poorest country in the world, with little social support, life expectancy, freedom to choose and high perceived corruption – generosity too scores relatively poorly. War torn Syria, while having a relatively strong economy, scores poorly in the metrics of social support, and freedom – while its people remain generous. Social support in Togo is almost non-existence, while healthy life expectancy and generosity remain relatively low, the country scores relatively well in the freedom metric.

Many of the top 25 least happy countries that took part in the survey, are found in Africa. Many of the countries on the African continent continue to suffer from low economic stability, poor health outcomes and corruption. 


Changes in happiness
As part of the analysis, the consultancy also explores the relative change in happiness between the period 2005-2007 and 2013-2015, the periods before and after the financial crisis in 2008. The research finds that in many developed countries happiness is creeping downwards. Australian happiness has remained flat, while Austria and Sweden have seen happiness fall slightly. New Zealand has seen its happiness score fall -0.097 points, with happiness in the Netherlands falling -0.119 since the financial crisis. The UK too has seen its happiness fall, dropping -0.161 since the financial crisis.

In terms of countries seeing the biggest drops in happiness between the period 2005-2007 and 2013-2015, Greece leads, with a drop of -1.294 points from 2007 to 99th place in the present period. Egypt too saw its level of happiness drop considerably between the two periods, following political and economic crisis. Spain and Italy, both hit hard by the crisis, have seen their relative levels of happiness drop considerably.

The report concludes that, “The widespread interest in the World Happiness Reports, of which this is the fourth, reflects growing global interest in using happiness and subjective well-being as primary indicators of the quality of human development. Because of this growing interest, many governments, communities and organisations are using happiness data, and the results of subjective well-being research, to enable policies that support better lives.”