Happiness is increasingly considered a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy. Hence the latest World Happiness Report, first published in 2012 in support of the United Nations High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-being. In addition to measuring GDP (Gross Domestic Product) each nation is also to measure GNH (Gross National Happiness).

While the United Kingdom presently leads the field in its scientific and analytical approach to viewing well-being as a guide for public policy, the United Arab Emirates is hard at its heels with its stated National Agenda aim “to be the happiest of all nations.” Individual cities around the world are competing for “Happy City” status.

As reading a 172-page UN report is unlikely to make anyone happy, I sacrificed my well-being to provide you with a summary:

Key Variables

The six key variables that were measured for 158 nations were;

  • 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
  • Generosity (as measured by recent donations, adjusted for differences in income).

Top and Bottom

Using those criteria, the Top 5 nations are:

  1. Switzerland
  2. Iceland
  3. Denmark
  4. Norway
  5. Canada

The USA comes in at #15 (after Mexico), and the UK at #21 (just two places above Venezuela).

The unhappiest place to live is Togo, Syria being third last, and Afghanistan in sixth last position.

Positive and Negative 

Some of the analysis went deeper than looking at the six key variables and included a range of positive and negative experiences.

The positive items include: happiness, smiling or laughter, enjoyment, feeling safe at night, feeling well-rested, and feeling interested.

The six negative items are: anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

Policy Implications

The benefits of new policies should be measured in terms of the impact of the change upon the happiness of the population.

Decisions have to be made between prioritizing the reduction of misery or increasing existing happiness.

Policy decision should also decide how much consideration should be given to the happiness of future generations.

“To build a better world requires that decision-makers give a central role to the happiness criterion in decision-making at every level.”

The Neuroscience of Happiness

Four scientifically proven supports for well-being are:

  • Sustained positive emotion
  • Quick recovery from negative experiences
  • Empathy, altruism, and pro-social behavior
  • Concentration and mindfulness

The neural circuits underlying these four supports for well-being all exhibit plasticity and therefore can be transformed through experience and training.

One especially interesting experiment used a smartphone app to sample the ability of 2000 individuals to concentrate as they went about their daily business:

They were interested in the frequency with which people reported their minds to be wandering (i.e., not focused on the activity in which they were predominantly engaged). At the same time, they also asked participants to rate the degree to which they were happy or unhappy at that moment. They found that on average, these participants reported their minds to be wandering 47% of the time. Moreover, when they reported their minds to be wandering, they also reported significantly more unhappiness than when they were focused on the activity at hand.

In other words, our ability to concentrate without being distracted is a key to well-being and happiness.

The Happiness of Children

Around 10% of the world’s children today (200 million children) are suffering from diagnosable mental health problems. Roughly half of these are suffering from anxiety disorders (or, less commonly, depression) and half from conduct disorder or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Approximately 1% of all children suffer from developmental disorders such as autism.

This is serious enough in itself. But, on top of that, over half the children who experience mental illness in childhood will suffer from mental illness again as adults. Their lives are more likely to be impoverished and unhappy.

Of the three key features of child development (academic, behavioral, or emotional) emotional development best predicts whether the resulting adult will be satisfied with life. Academic achievement is the worst.


Well-being depends heavily on the pro-social behavior (honesty, trust, generosity, etc) of members of the society. The least corrupt societies have the most pro-social behavior and the most corrupt have the least.


The science is both fascinating and frustrating. The findings are interesting but the solutions unsatisfying. Despite all the scientific analysis, the universal search for happiness continues unabated through the decades and centuries. And the target still remains elusive. Apart from the National league tables which will show some changes from year to year, the World Happiness Report for 3015 (D.V.)  will probably look much the same as that for 2015. Evidence-based research might help to diagnose some of the secondary problems but the primary problem remains – the soul that was made for God will never be happy without Him.