What Can We Learn from the Happiest Countries on Earth?

The 2015 World Happiness Report shows what it takes to achieve inner fulfillment. Here’s what we can take away from it in our own daily lives.

The 2015 World Happiness Report was released in April and determined that, based on data collected from 2012-2014, the happiest countries in the world are:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Iceland
  3. Denmark
  4. Norway
  5. Canada
  6. Finland
  7. Netherlands
  8. Sweden
  9. New Zealand
  10. Australia

So the surface-level takeaway here is that cold-climate, wealthy countries with lots of natural resources are straight-up happier than the rest of us (the U.S. ranked 15th of 158, a slight uptick from last year). But you don’t necessarily have to commute by dogsled to be happy: Israel and Costa Rica rank 11th and 12th. And as one might imagine, the bottom ten countries in the happiness rating are, without exception, poverty-stricken and war-torn.

How is happiness determined?

The goals of the World Happiness Report have been simple: to debunk the idea that robot-metrics like ROI and GDP determine the overall happiness of the people who make up the country. In fact, the report aims to bring a little more, well, Life into the picture, and then use those findings to better inform public policy and sustainable development.

The report states, “If the aim of policy is to increase happiness, policy makers will have to evaluate their policy options in a quite new way...The benefits of a new policy should now be measured in terms of the impact of the change upon the happiness of the population.”

Sounds good, right? So how did they get there?

While the goal of the report is to look past gross domestic product and military spending, money doesn’t count for nothing here. The report weighs six variables: GDP per capita; healthy years of life expectancy; social support (number of people one says they can “count on”); trust in government and business institutions; perceived freedom to make life decisions; and generosity (levels of volunteering, for example).

Health, income and social support are the most important variables. Social support is perhaps the most important, as dips in economic numbers affect well-being much less in places where social support is higher.

The takeaway? True happiness depends on social capital, not just financial.

How does one “pursue” happiness?

The World Happiness Report looks at four elements in the pursuit of happiness: “sustained positive emotion” (yep, yep got it); recovery from negative emotion; empathy, altruism or “pro-social” activity; and time spent in “mindfulness,” and “flow” – activities that immerse you and make time fly.

In his recent commentary, Dick Meyer points out the good news is that these factors are most often something we as individuals can control. A person can increase social behavior or learn how to better bounce back from setbacks – like the Icelanders.

What else do these happy countries have going for them?

Beauty. Dramatic landscapes, miles of beaches, sweeping vistas, acres of flowers, windmills, charming cobblestone cities, canals and bike lanes. Fjords, for gosh sake! Each of the Top Ten are travel destinations thanks to natural beauty, preservation of culture, and happy people. (And this isn’t necessarily covered in The World Happiness Report, but have you ever seen a Swede? They are GORGEOUS.) One can’t help but wonder if overall happiness is linked to natural beauty.

Could there be more to happiness that The World Happiness Report doesn’t cover?

If you are lucky enough to be able to choose where you live and you chose to live in a place of great natural beauty, than you know the answer to this. Two 2014 studies published in the journal Environment and Behavior state that nature is unique in its ability to make us happy. According to Psychology Today these two studies bring us to the conclusion that:

  • Our connectedness to the natural world is distinct from other connections, such as to family or society.

  • Nature-relatedness often predicts happiness in spite of other influences.

  • Connection to nature may help foster attitudes related to sustainability, and therefore could be important for conservation efforts

Could this approach to analyzing happiness be folded into the 2016 edition of The World Happiness Report? Does nature and conservation have a place in public policy on a global scale? In his recent Huffington Post commentary, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, sums up this year’s report with hope and precision. The report is not a static one, nor is its subject.

“We are at an early stage in the new science of happiness and life satisfaction, and at an even earlier stage in thinking about the implications for public policy. Yet the ancient sages and the latest research both tell us to keep moving forward, to put happiness back at the center of our public concerns, and to place money making as just one among many objectives.”

What’s the biggest factor in your happiness? Share in the comments.