happinessDenmark!!!!?!!  You mean dreary, cold, rainy, tortured-soul Hamlet Denmark?    Yup, that Denmark was found to be the happiest country on Earth by the World Happiness Report.   Apparently, happiness does not directly correlate with weather.   However, even more revealing was that happiness does directly relate to equality.   The report found that inequality was strongly associated with unhappiness — a stark finding for rich countries like the United States, where rising disparities in income, wealth, health and well-being have fueled political discontent.   In a chapter of the report on the distribution of happiness around the world, three economists — John F. Helliwell, of the University of British Columbia; Haifang Huang of the University of Alberta; and Shun Wang of the Korea Development Institute — noted research showing that that unemployment and major disabilities have lasting influences on well-being; and that the happiness of migrants approximates that of their new country, instead of their country of origin.

Notably, Denmark was followed by Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden. Most are fairly homogeneous nations with strong social safety nets and relative wealth equality.   In stark contrast, even though the U.S. is wealthy, over the last 50 years, it has not gotten any happier.   The report states:  “When countries single-mindedly pursue individual objectives, such as economic development to the neglect of social and environmental objectives, the results can be highly adverse for human wellbeing, even dangerous for survival…..Many countries in recent years have achieved economic growth at the cost of sharply rising inequality, entrenched social exclusion, and grave damage to the natural environment.”

The happiness ranking was based on individual responses to a global poll conducted by Gallup.  Seven factors were examined to measure happiness including a healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, generosity and higher gross domestic product per capita. The poll included a question, known as the Cantril 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?”

The scholars found that three-quarters of the variation across countries could be explained by six variables: gross domestic product per capita (the rawest measure of a nation’s wealth); healthy years of life expectancy; social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble); trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (as measured by donations).   The report includes an analysis by  Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia University economist who indicates that their research rebuts the notion that happiness and freedom — especially when narrowly defined as economic liberty — are interchangeable.  He wrote: “The libertarian argument that economic freedom should be championed above all other values decisively fails the happiness test: There is no evidence that economic freedom per se is a major direct contributor of human well-being above and beyond what it might contribute towards per-capita income and employment”.

The first report was issued in 2012 to support a U.N. meeting on happiness and well-being. Five countries – Bhutan, Ecuador, Scotland, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela – now have appointed Ministers of Happiness charged with promoting it as a goal of public policy.  Costa Rica, which came in 14th and ahead of many wealthier countries, as an example of a healthy, happy society although it is not an economic powerhouse.

The bottom line:  “The message for the United States is clear. For a society that just chases money, we are chasing the wrong things. Our social fabric is deteriorating, social trust is deteriorating, faith in government is deteriorating,”, according to Dr. Sachs.   Anyone interested in nominating a Minister of Happiness for the U.S.?