Psychological well-being has become a standard that some government policymakers around the world are considering in determining how to spend taxpayers' money.
An increasing number of countries are striving to improve their standings in a global happiness ranking that serves as an alternative to traditional metrics of success like the gross national product. In New Zealand, officials track how their budget decisions affect constituents' mental states. They are using mobile apps and emotion sensors, and compiling information about people's behaviors.
Earlier this year, Dubai announced that it had created a Smart Happiness Index to analyze how the government's spending priorities affect public contentment. The United Arab Emirates city is one of many places where authorities are beginning to recognize the measurement of happiness as a legitimate social science.
A number of research facilities and academic publications are dedicated to the issue. Experts in philosophy, psychology, sociology, health, economics, culture and the arts are among those working on formulas to assess the degree of a population's happiness.
The effort is a challenge, since mental well-being is subjective and not easily categorized. The World Happiness Report, which has been published six times since 2012, is a project of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, with funding from the Ernesto Illy Foundation. The report bases its findings on Gallup polls and a survey that asks respondents to rank their overall feelings about life on a scale of zero to 10.
The latest report, released in March, named Finland as the happiest of 156 countries. Next on the list were two other Scandinavian nations, Norway and Denmark, followed by Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia.
The United States placed 18th, down four positions from the previous survey. “U.S. policymakers should take note,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, one of the report's editors, warned. “The U.S. happiness ranking is falling in part because of the ongoing epidemics of obesity, substance abuse and untreated depression.”
Burundi was the unhappiest place on the planet, according to the report. The other lowest-ranking countries were the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen. Venezuela, which is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country, slipped from 82nd to 102nd place on the list from 2017 to 2018.
Some of the world's most prosperous nations also did not fare well this year. Germany ranked 15th, the United Kingdom 19th, Japan 54th, Russia 59th, and China 86th.
The 10 happiest countries in the previous report, published in 2017, were Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden.
Researchers study six variables: income, life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust in government and generosity. The per-capita gross national product in the 10 happiest countries is 30 times higher than in the 10 lowest-ranking nations.
However, report co-editor John Helliwell argued that wealth is not the primary factor. “It’s the human things that matter,” the University of British Columbia economics professor told the Washington Post. “If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationships between people, is it worth it? The material can stand in the way of the human.”
The report also looks at the psychological state of immigrants. Finland was first on that list, as well. “Although immigrants come from countries with very different levels of happiness, their reported life evaluations converge towards those of other residents in their new countries,” Helliwell explained. “Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose.”
Each year on March 20, the United Nations General Assembly celebrates World Happiness Day to honor “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world, and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”
Information collected in surveys provide insight into how factors like age, gender, income, education and health influence happiness. Countries ranking low on the list typically have wide gaps between the rich and the poor, and high rates of depression.
Behavioral economics has emerged as a field of study that takes into account “neuroscientific and genetic evidence,” according to Alternet. Such data provide a quantifiable method of assessing psychological well-being, which gives government policymakers objective guidance.
The science is tricky, because even people suffering from mental-health issues can feel happy. Researchers also do not fully understand why Finland and Denmark have high suicide rates. “Even if we lived in a Utopia, there would still be unhappy people,” said Isabella Arendt, a researcher at the Danish Happiness Research Institute.
Another apparent contradiction is that happy people are less likely to become active in politics. Because they are content, they tend to accept their governments' actions rather than engage in protests.
It remains unclear whether international leaders will fully embrace happiness as a measure of their countries' greatness. Unfortunately, money and power are still the biggest factors in government policymaking.