Happy people dance on the beach.
Credit: YanLev, Shutterstock
The happiest people in the world may live in Scandinavia, a new study suggests.
That's according to the United Nations General Assembly's second World Happiness Report, which ranks countries based on several measures of well-being and analyzes the factors that contribute to that well-being.
Denmark was the happiest country, followed by Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada. [See List of World's Happiest Countries]
For years, the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan has tried to measure "gross national happiness" to counter measures such as gross domestic product (GDP), arguing that such simple metrics don't capture what is really meaningful to people.
Last year's study showed that whereas rich people are happier on average than poor people, increasing GDP in a country doesn't necessarily boost well-being. For instance, GDP tripled in the United States since the 1960s, yet well-being has stagnated.
To assess world happiness in the new study, the researchers analyzed happiness data starting from 2005. Most of the data came from the Gallup World Poll, which surveyed more than 150 countries around the world.
Scandinavian countries topped the list of happiest countries, with the United States ranking 17th,bested by Mexico, Panama and the United Arab Emirates.
On average, people in more than 150 countries rate their happiness as a 5.1 on a scale of 0 to 10. But happiness hasn't stayed constant over time: 61 countries saw their happiness improve over the years, while 41 countries have become unhappier. Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are becoming happier overall, while industrial nations report less well-being.
More than three-quarters of the differences in happiness scores were attributable to six key metrics: real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption and generosity. [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]
The new data could help public policy-makers tweak their policies to impact those factors, such as cracking down on corruption, to boost people's happiness.
In adddition, mental health problems such as clinical depression and anxiety have a huge impact on people's well-being. Yet mental health issues are often ignored b policy-makers, the study found.
"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 study co-author Jeffery Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in a statement. "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."
Happy citizens also make for better countries: The report found that happiness makes fore people who live longer, more productive lives, have higher earnings and are better citizens.