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Report calls on policy makers to make happiness a key measure and target of development

Report ranks the happiest countries, with Northern Europe in the lead.

NEW YORK, NY, Sept 9th: As heads of state get ready for the United Nations General Assembly in two weeks, the second World Happiness Report further strengthens the case that well-being should be a critical component of how the world measures its economic and social development. The report is published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).  Leading experts in several fields – economics, psychology, survey analysis, national statistics, and more – describe how measurements of well-being can be used effectively to assess the progress of nations. The Report is edited by Professor John F. Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research; Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Well-Being Programme at LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance; and Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Director of the SDSN, and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General.

“There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their well-being,” said Professor Jeffery Sachs. “More and more world leaders are talking about the importance of well-being as a guide for their nations and the world. The World Happiness Report 2013 offers rich evidence that the systematic measurement and analysis of happiness can teach us a lot about ways to improve the world’s well-being and sustainable development.”

The first World Happiness Report, released in 2012 ahead of the UN high-level meeting on Happiness and Well-being, drew international attention as a landmark first survey of the state of global happiness. This new Report goes further.  It delves in more detail into the analysis of the global happiness data, examining trends over time and breaking down each country’s score into its component parts, so that citizens and policy makers can understand their country’s ranking. It also draws connections to other major initiatives to measure well-being, including those conducted by the OECD and UNDP’s Human Development Report; and provides guidance for policy makers on how to effectively incorporate well-being into their decision making processes.

The report identifies the countries with the highest levels of happiness:

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Switzerland
  4. Netherlands
  5. Sweden

The World Happiness Report 2013 reveals fascinating trends in the data judging just how happy countries really are. On a scale running from 0 to 10, people in over 150 countries, surveyed by Gallup over the period 2010-12, reveal a population-weighted average score of 5.1 (out of 10). Six key variables explain three-quarters of the variation in annual national average scores over time and among countries. These six factors include: real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity (Table 2.1).

The Report shows significant changes in happiness in countries over time, with some countries rising and others falling over the past five years. There is some evidence of global convergence of happiness levels, with happiness gains more common in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and losses more common among the industrial countries. For the 130 countries with data available, happiness (as measured by people’s own evaluations of their lives) significantly improved in 60 countries and worsened in 41 (Figure 2.5).

For policy makers, the key issue is what affects happiness. Some studies show mental health to be the single most important determinant of whether a person is happy or not. Yet, even in rich countries, less than a third of mentally ill people are in treatment. Good, cost-effective treatments exist for depression, anxiety disorders and psychosis, and the happiness of the world would be greatly increased if they were more widely available.

The Report also shows the major beneficial side-effects of happiness. Happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens. Well-being should be developed both for its own sake and for its side-effects.

Governments are increasingly measuring well-being with the goal of making well-being an objective of policy. One chapter of the Report, written by Lord Gus O’Donnell, former UK Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, shows just how this can be done. It shows how different are the policy conclusions when health, transport and education are viewed in this light.

Governments worldwide are now measuring subjective well-being or are currently considering whether to do so. In this Report, the OECD explains the thinking behind their new international standard guidelines for measuring well-being, and the office of the UN Human Development Report explains its own approach to the issue.

The World Happiness Report 2013 was launched at a major international workshop on September 8th. A technical workshop on the OECD Guidelines was held in a parallel session.

An earlier version of this press release did not include the following paragraph:The World Happiness Report was written by a group of independent experts acting in their personal capacities. Any views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization, agency or programme of the United Nations.

For media inquiries, contact Kyu Lee, Assistant Director, Communications, Earth Institute: klee@ei.columbia.edu