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What makes societies happy?


The idea that the happiness of people should be a goal of public policy is not new. As early as 1809, Thomas Jefferson stated publicly his belief that “the care of human life and happiness… is the only legitimate object of good government.” And yet, for the lion’s share of human history, we have gauged societal wellbeing according to much cruder metrics, like national income. Of course, what makes people richer and what enables their flourishing are not always one and the same, and it’s encouraging that policymakers from the Kingdom of Bhutan to Santa Monica, California are beginning to incorporate the science of happiness into their work.

This year’s World Happiness Report, produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, is the combined effort of experts in economics, neuroscience, and national statistics. The researchers looked at surveys of happiness levels in 158 countries conducted between 2012 and 2015, and tried to determine the key variables behind the numbers. They found that the five happiest countries are Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Canada; and determined the least happy to be Rwanda, Benin, Syria, Burundi, and Togo.


So what accounts for the differences between the happiest countries and the least? According to the report, three-quarters of the differences among countries can be explained by six variables:

GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations, adjusted for differences in income).”

Interestingly, Iceland and Ireland, which recently withstood economic shocks, and Japan, which underwent a major natural disaster, are climbing up the ranks. It’s wildly counterintuitive, but in some cases crises may actually result in a sort-of collective post-traumatic growth. As the researchers explain, “Countries with sufficient high-quality social capital appear to be able to sustain, or even improve subjective well-being in the face of natural disasters or economic shocks, as the shocks provide them an opportunity to discover, use and build upon their communal links.” Conversely, in countries with porous safety nets and high levels of corruption, “economic crisis triggered drops in happiness greater than could be explained by falling incomes and higher unemployment.”

What the research points to is that happiness is not merely an individual psychological phenomenon, but the product of many overlapping influences, including the quality of surrounding social norms and institutions.


The study of happiness and public policy is a new discipline and has obvious limitations for policymakers, like the absence of a clear way to weigh the happiness of the present generation against the happiness of future generations.

But if Thomas Jefferson is right—if the care of human life and happiness really is the only legitimate object of good government—then public officials will have to rethink how they govern, and reassess the criterion by which they evaluate progress. Policymakers will have to ask not only if a new piece of legislation will increase economic growth, but how it will impact the happiness of the population.

And that’s a bold idea worth sharing.

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