In the past two years alone, people around the world have had to contend with wars, a pandemic, storms, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, civil strife and the list goes on. Now, in addition to all this, the world might be on the brink of a food security crisis and a global economic recession. On many levels, we are living in hard times. This is the backdrop against which the 2022 World Happiness Report has been launched.
The World Happiness Report is a publication of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Solutions Network, covering 150 countries. The World Happiness Report largely exists because of a UN Resolution sponsored by Bhutan in July 2011. The Resolution 65/309, titled “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN and it invited national governments to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development.”
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment. The report uses six variables to measure happiness: “income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”
According to the report Finland is the world’s happiest country, followed by Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and the Netherlands to round out the top five. With the exception of Costa Rica which ranks 16th, all other countries in the top 20 are developed economies. Jamaica at 36 is the highest ranked Caribbean country. Meanwhile, Haiti ranks at 140th. Disappointingly, the report does not include other Caribbean countries.
It is interesting, but not surprising that the five Nordic countries are all included in the top 10, with Norway at number 6 the lowest ranked among them. It is also not surprising that Switzerland ranks 3rd.
Nordic countries, as well as Switzerland, are known for high living standards and low-income disparity. They have managed to merge free-market capitalism with a generous welfare system which is highly regarded as an attractive alternative to the winner-take-all brand of capitalism that has resulted in significant inequality in many countries.
While the Nordic countries as well as Switzerland impose high taxes on their citizens, the trade-off is that their citizens enjoy a host of top-quality services, including free education and healthcare (Switzerland not included) and generous, guaranteed pension payments for retirees.
The citizens also have a high degree of trust in their government and healthy democratic processes which allow for a high degree of people empowerment. Switzerland, for example, has a system of participatory democracy which allows for citizens to have a direct say in how their affairs are run through referenda, some of which are binding on the state.
In the World Happiness Report, Finlanders felt strongly that they were free to make their own choices, and showed minimal suspicion of government corruption. The report notes that both of these factors are strong contributors to overall happiness.
Meanwhile, the Danish scored highly on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, generosity, and perceived lack of corruption. For its part, the report demonstrates that the Swiss are very healthy, with one of the world’s lowest obesity rates and a long life expectancy.
The Swiss also have a very high median salary, roughly 75% higher than that of the United States, and the highest GDP per capita among the top seven countries. Along with Iceland and Denmark, Switzerland is also one of the world’s safest countries. All of these contribute to Swiss happiness.
Can other nations, especially smaller countries, follow the Nordic countries and Switzerland in establishing the basic conditions for happiness as per the World Happiness Report? The truth is that these countries have a long tradition of governance and socio-economic organisation which has brought them to where they are today. Conditions in other countries are unlikely to allow for a simple copy and paste.
Nonetheless, the World Happiness Report does underscore the inherent value that citizens typically place on certain core issues, such as a respectable income, health, certain essential democratic dividends and the absence of corruption in government and business. All countries can and should strive to high outcomes in these areas.