Happiest countries in the world are not necessarily the richest, but those with truly democratic governments

Those who want much are always much in need.
Happy are those who simply want sufficient for their needs.

Is human happiness a feeling that can be measured and quantified? Nobody, of course, is perpetually happy, but, for most people in some nations, happiness is more the norm than the exception.

That assessment, however, depends on how happiness is defined.

There are two annual polls that attempt this economic, social, and cultural evaluation, and their rankings of the happiest and unhappiest countries are markedly different. That’s because the UN’s annual World Happiness Report basically assesses how people in each country see their lives, while Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Report gauges how they live their lives.

The difference is significant. The World Happiness Report’s researchers say that most people’s happiness is driven by strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, trust, generosity, quality social relationships, and the freedom to live and work as they prefer. On the basis of these factors, not surprisingly, the nations ranked as the top five in the 2016 UN survey are Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland.

Dan Buettner, writing on “The Search for Happiness” in the November issue of National Geographic, points out that these factors don’t materialize by chance. “They are intimately connected to a country’s government and its cultural values. In other words, the happiest places incubate happiness for their people.”

This crucial role of government in enhancing its citizens’ contentment also applies to the findings of Gallup’s Global Emotions poll, which finds that most of the world’s happiest people live in Central and South America.

Poverty doesn’t preclude happiness

Jon Clifton, writing in the Diplomatic Courier, explains the key difference between the two polls

“The UN survey asks people how they see their lives, using a scale of 0 to 10, with zero being the worst possible life and 10 being the best possible life. Using this scale, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have the world’s happiest people. But Gallup’s poll finds that the richest countries are not always at the top and the poorest at the bottom.

“When countries are assessed on the basis of how their citizens live their lives through experiences such as smiling and laughing, being treated with respect, doing work they enjoy, having an adequate income, a sense of purpose, and close social relationships, the happiest people are living in Latin American countries.”      

Gallup’s Emotions Poll does place some of the rich countries on its Atlas of Happiness, including Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Ireland. But most of the happiest people the poll identifies are located in Central and South America — notably Costa Rica, but also including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay, and Argentina.

Costa Rica and Denmark scored the highest in happiness in both polls last year, even though Denmark, with a per capita GDP of US$43,400, is nearly four times richer than Costa Rica with its relatively meager per capita GDP of US$11,400. Why are the residents of both these countries the world’s happiest, even with such disparate levels of national income?

The short answer is that the politicians they elect are committed to governing in the public interest – to maximizing their citizens’ equality, security, health and living standards (hence their happiness), and minimizing their ill-health, poverty, and stress. This means their governments steadfastly resist the influence of large corporations, maintain a fair tax system, and scrupulously deter political corruption.

These qualities of good governance are evident in all the happiest countries, regardless of which of the two global polls they are ranked. To further explain this apparent anomaly, let’s take a closer look at how Denmark and Costa Rica are governed. Much of the following information is culled from the National Geographic stories about the two countries, but is also readily available from other sources for readers who may wish to do their own research.


Like people in most countries in Europe, Danes have comprehensive (“free”) public health care, free education from kindergarten through university, a hefty guaranteed pension on retirement, yearlong paid parental leave, and a paid annual vacation of at least four weeks.

These benefits are funded from one of the world’s highest tax rates, which range from 41% to 56%. But Danes don’t complain. Why would they, when they don’t have to spend a cent on health care, education, retirement, or parental leave? They live in a country in which national income is equitably shared, where they are not forced to compete for the essentials of life, as so many people are in countries with “free market” neoliberal governments.

Jonathan Schwartz, an American anthropologist based in Copenhagen, says that “the system of government in Denmark doesn’t so much ensure happiness as it keeps people from doing what will make them unhappy.”

Costa Rica

 This central American country is fortunate that it lacks oil and precious minerals, and thus has not attracted exploitative corporations or aggressive foreign governments. Dan Buettner says that “an alchemy of geography and social policies has created a powerful blend of family bonds, universal health care, faith, lasting peace, equality, and generosity. Costa Rica is a country that, for most of the past century, has believed in supporting every citizen.

“Costa Ricans elected teachers as presidents, who, unencumbered by corrosive colonial institutions, introduced policies that launched an upward spiral of well-being and thus the environment – a combination that delivers more happiness per GDP dollar than just about anywhere else.”

As far back as 1869, Costa Rica made primary school mandatory for every child, notably girls, and by 1930 its literacy rate was the highest in Latin America. Clean water was supplied to villages, curbing deadly childhood diseases such as cholera and diarrhea. A public social security system was launched in the 1940s, at about the same time that Costa Rica disbanded its army and renounced all military activities. Legislation in 1961 led to the creation of universal health care and the provision of free clinics in most villages.

Life expectancy has since risen from 66 years to 80, along with a sharp drop in infant mortality. The death rate from heart disease for men is about a third less than in the United States, even though Costa Rica spends only one-tenth as much per capita on health care as does the U.S.

As former Costa Rica President José Maria Figueres told Buettner, “Our health care system works so well because it aims to keep people healthy [rather than trying to cure them after they get sick].”

Mariano Rojas, a Costa Rican economist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City, summed up the results of his country’s social service system in these words: “It takes care of people’s needs. It leaves them feeling safe, comparatively healthy, free of life’s biggest worries, while providing an environment where most people can still make a living.”

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Clearly, these contrasting facts and figures about how life is lived in a rich country and a financially poor one prove that happiness is not inextricably linked to a nation’s gross domestic revenue. It proves, rather, that happiness is mainly determined by the policies and priorities of a country’s government.

A government truly committed to augmenting the well-being of all its citizens can obviously do so, regardless of the size of its GDP. This commitment, of course, would only be made by a government that was devoted to the broad public interest, instead of the narrow interests of the rich and powerful. By a government, in short, that was not bent on pursuing the neoliberal agenda of unregulated and uncontrolled capitalism.

Regrettably, although Canada is ranked seventh in the UN poll, it falls further behind in Gallup poll’s list of happiness-inducing countries. We rank higher than the United States, of course (who doesn’t?) but lag behind the happiest countries. That’s mainly because of the inexcusably steep levels of poverty and inequality that still prevail in Canada; because of the huge gaps in our public health care coverage (no drug, dental or vision coverage); and because of our disgracefully poor records on child care, the environment, and treatment of indigenous peoples.

I urge political activists to acquaint themselves with the two annual reports on world happiness. They’ll find plenty of factual ammunition to bolster their efforts to make Canada the truly happy country it has the capacity – if not yet the political will – to become.