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First World Happiness Report launched at United Nations

29 Mar 2012 | Action for Happiness

On 2 April 2012, the first ever United Nations conference on happiness and wellbeing is taking place at the UN Headquarters in New York

The event, entitled Wellbeing & Happiness: Defining A New Economic Paradigm, will involve world leaders and global experts from a wide range of fields. It builds on a UN General Assembly resolution agreed in July 2011 encouraging countries to promote the happiness of their citizens.

To mark the conference, a new World Happiness Report is being released, edited by John Helliwell, Jeffrey Sachs and Action for Happiness co-founder Richard Layard.

World Happiness Report

The report reflects a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness and absence of misery as criteria for government policy. It reviews the state of happiness in the world today and shows how the new science of happiness explains personal and national variations in happiness.

Key findings

  • The happiest countries in the world are all in Northern Europe (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Netherlands). Their average life evaluation score is 7.6 on a 0-to-10 scale.
  • The least happy countries are all poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone) with average life evaluation scores of 3.4.
  • It is not just wealth that makes people happy: political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries.
  • At the individual level, good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and stable families are crucial.
  • Over time as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (like for example, the United States). On average, the world has become a little happier in the last 30 years
  • Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.
  • Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries. 
  • Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children.
  • In advanced countries, women are happier than men, while the position in poorer countries is mixed. Happiness is lowest in middle age.

Chapter 1: Introduction

We live in an age of stark contradictions. The world enjoys technologies of unimaginable sophistication; yet has at least one billion people without enough to eat each day. The world economy is propelled to soaring new heights of productivity through ongoing technological and organizational advance; yet is relentlessly destroying the natural environment in the process. Countries achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to new crises of obesity, smoking, diabetes, depression, and other ills of modern life. 

These contradictions would not come as a shock to the greatest sages of humanity, including Aristotle and the Buddha. The sages taught humanity, time and again, that material gain alone will not fulfill our deepest needs. Material life must be harnessed to meet these human needs, most importantly to promote the end of suffering, social justice, and the attainment of happiness. The challenge is real for all parts of the world.  

As one key example, the world's economic superpower, the United States, has achieved striking economic and technological progress over the past half century without gains in the self-reported happiness of the citizenry.  Instead, uncertainties and anxieties are high, social and economic inequalities have widened considerably, social trust is in decline, and confidence in government is at an all-time low. Perhaps for these reasons, life satisfaction has remained nearly constant during decades of rising Gross National Product (GNP) per capita.

The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. If we continue mindlessly along the current  economic trajectory, we risk undermining the Earth's life support systems - food supplies, clean water, and stable climate - necessary for human health and even survival in some places. On the other hand, if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment. "Sustainable Development" is the term given to the combination of human well-being, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. We can say that the quest for happiness is intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development."

Continue reading in the World Happiness Report

Structure of the report

  • Chapter 1 provides an introduction, highlighting the significant problems faced in our current societies and why there is a strong case for adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness while reducing human damage to the environment.
  • Chapter 2 discusses happiness measures currently in use across countries, and asks whether or not these measures can provide valid information about quality of life that can be used to guide policy-making. It argues that regular large-scale collection of happiness data will enable analysis of the impacts of policies on well-being, improve macroeconomic policy-making and can inform service delivery.
  • Chapter 3 discusses the causes of happiness and misery, based on 30 years of research on the topic. Important external factors include income, work, community and governance, and values and religion. More "personal" factors include mental and physical health, family experience, education, gender, and age. An analysis of all these factors strikingly shows that while absolute income is important in poor countries, in richer countries comparative income is probably the most important. Many other variables have a more powerful effect on happiness, including social trust, quality of work, and freedom of choice and political participation. 
  • Chapter 4 discusses some of the policy implications of these findings. GNP is a valuable goal, but should not be pursued to the point where economic stability is jeopardized, community cohesion is destroyed, the vulnerable are not supported, ethical standards are sacrificed, or the world's climate is put at risk. While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met happiness varies more with quality of human relationships than income. Other policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all.
  • Case studies. The report describes in detail how happiness is measured in Bhutan and the United Kingdom, and it lays out how the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development plans to promote standard methods of data collection in different countries.



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"We urgently need a change in priorities. So if you believe in a more caring society that puts well-being before wealth, and prioritises the things that really matter, then join us - add your voice and take action. Together we can create a better, happier future".

Mark Williamson

Mark Williamson
Director, Action for Happiness

Action for Happiness


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