Good cheer might abound in Naples, Florida, but as a whole, the United States is lagging behind comparably wealthy nations when it comes to its residents’ happiness. As Maggie Astor reports for the New York Times, the U.S. ranked 18th out of 156 countries surveyed in the World Happiness Report of 2018. The top spot went to Finland.
The World Happiness Report is produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and it draws on data from on Gallup International surveys conducted between 2015 to 2017. The surveys asked thousands of people across the globe to place themselves on a ladder with steps numbered from zero to 10, with 10 representing the best possible life—a method known as the Cantril scale.
Finland scored an average of 7.632. Other Nordic nations also ranked high on the list of happiest countries; after Finland, the top nine spots were occupied by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.
The report evaluates six variables: GDP (or gross domestic product) per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption and generosity. Most of the top 10 countries are social democracies, which “believe that what makes people happy is solid social support systems, good public services, and even paying a significant amount in taxes for that,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and an editor of the report, tells Astor. This political philosophy, he adds, is very different from that of the United States.
Though the economy in America is strong, its place in the ranking fell four spots from last year’s report. In an interview with Patrick Collinson of the Guardian, Sachs explained that “America’s subjective wellbeing is being systematically undermined by three interrelated epidemic diseases, notably obesity, substance abuse (especially opioid addiction) and depression.”
Burundi placed last in the ranking, with an average score of 2.905. Second from last was the Central African Republic. Both countries are plagued by political instability and violence. Though most of the bottom ten spots are occupied by African nations, Togo is one of this year’s biggest gainers: the country ranked last in 2015, but rose 18 places in the 2018 report.
One of the major themes of this year’s report was the intersection of migration and happiness, and countries were also ranked based on the happiness of their immigrants. Strikingly, the authors of the report found that immigrant happiness scores were almost identical to the scores of the population at large. Finland, for example, also came first in the ranking of immigrant happiness, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
“The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live, illustrating a general pattern of convergence,” the authors of the report write.
The authors also considered a Gallup index that measured how accepting countries are of migrants. A higher value for migrant acceptance was linked to greater happiness among both immigrants and native residents “by almost equal amounts,” the report says.
“Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live,” the authors of the report add. “The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.”