Why some countries are happier than others

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Why some countries are happier than others

Why are people from some countries happier than others?

Trying to answer such a wooly question with numbers might seem like a strange exercise to engage in, and yet social science research shows there is plenty we can learn about peoples’ subjective experiences from quantitative analysis. One notable attempt at explaining what makes humans happy comes from the World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations.

Wysa analyzed the 2023 World Happiness Report to get a sense of the biggest factors determining happiness at the national level. The study, based on a survey conducted by Gallup, asks respondents from 137 countries and territories to rate how satisfied they are with their lives, on a scale of zero to 10, with zero being completely dissatisfied and 10 being completely satisfied. The main findings of the report were then extracted and supplemented with our own analysis, utilizing data from the World Bank Group.

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One obvious determining factor of people’s happiness in a given country is its national income. In general, people from richer countries are much more likely to say they are happy with their lives. But other major factors, such as public health and social support, matter a great deal too.

A scatterplot showing a strong correlation between GDP per capita and average levels of happiness by country.


National happiness is strongly correlated with income

The most common way to gauge a country’s wealth is to look at its gross domestic product, which tracks the nation’s total economic output, including government spending. Plotting the countries’ average happiness levels against their average incomes (as measured by GDP per capita) reveals some striking patterns.

For the most part, differences in income levels do correspond to differences in happiness. Luxembourg, for instance, was the richest country in the dataset, with a GDP per capita of around $115,000. Its residents rated their happiness as a 7.2 out of 10. In contrast, India was one of the poorer countries in the UN report, with a GDP per capita of about $6,400. Indians rated their happiness at only a 4.0 out of 10.

But the data also shows some notable exceptions. For instance, many European countries rate higher on the satisfaction scale than you might expect based on their income levels alone. Finland, home to the world’s happiest citizens, scored a 7.8 on the life satisfaction scale, while the United States only scored a 6.9. That is despite the fact that America’s GDP per capita is nearly 30% higher than that of the Scandinavian state

There are also a few extreme outliers. Venezuela, for example, has been going through a very tough time economically. The country is currently going through hyperinflation, with prices up by 360% over the previous year, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. The Venezuelan government has stopped publishing reliable statistics, but the IMF estimated that unemployment hit 35% in 2018. Despite these economic woes, the country still ranks close to other Latin American countries with a 5.2 happiness score.

Other regions, such as Afghanistan and Hong Kong, scored much lower on the happiness scale in 2022 than their economic statistics suggested they should. This could be because of political turmoil that is not reflected in GDP data. Afghanistan’s government collapsed and was replaced by the Taliban in August 2021, when the United States finally withdrew its military support after two tumultuous decades. Around the same time, Hong Kongers also experienced a drastic political shift. China imposed new legislation on the territory in June 2020, effectively stripping Hong Kong of its judicial and legislative independence and ending democracy in the territory.

A bar chart showing what factors correlate with happiness. GDP per capita, life expectancy, and social connectedness are all strongly correlated with life satisfaction.


Social connections and public health matter too

Our analysis showed that South American countries tended to be happier than expected, based on income levels. One explanation for this is that they tend to receive copious amounts of sunshine. However, weather patterns do not seem to be a good explanation for this discrepancy. Our analysis found that average climate conditions had little bearing on a country’s happiness. If anything, countries with hotter weather, as well as those with more tourism-dependent economies, actually tended to be less happy, all else being equal.

We also looked at how homicide rates might impact a country’s level of happiness; surprisingly, they seemed to have very little impact on satisfaction scores. In contrast, unemployment and income inequality did seem to have negative relationships with happiness. These relationships held, even after controlling for GDP per capita.

The only variable that beats out GDP per capita in terms of contributing to a country’s level of happiness is what the United Nations report called “social support.” It was a yes-or-no question asking, “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” It turns out that money isn’t everything. But it counts for a lot.

Story editing by Ashleigh Graf and Kelly Glass. Copy editing by Paris Close.

This story originally appeared on Wysa and was produced and
distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.