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What makes a country happy? We asked a happiness expert

Happiness and the globe
Happiness and the globe Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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What makes a happy person, a happy culture or a happy country? We spoke to one of the leading experts on how to live a happy life to discover what are the secrets to living the good life.


Every year, two global happiness studies are released. The first is the World Happiness Report. Created by the UN and in its 10th year, the World Happiness Report measures how different populations consider their overall life satisfaction across factors including GDP, health and social support.

The other major study is put together by Ipsos, a global data company. The Ipsos Global Happiness Report also asks people from all over the world how happy they are in their interpersonal relations, their economic stability and health.

The two surveys, run by different companies, are largely asking similar questions. Yet every year without fail, they come up with a different list of the happiest countries on Earth. The UN, for the sixth year running, placed Finland as the world’s happiest country. Following Finland was Denmark, Iceland, Israel and the Netherlands.

In contrast to the Scandi-dominated UN list, Ipsos has a radically different top five. The happiest countries according to Ipsos are China, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, India and Brazil. By comparison, China ranks 64th happiest country in the UN study.

So what’s going on? The differences mainly come in the way the different reports carry out their surveys. While both survey around the same amount of people, Ipsos recognises that the people selected in countries such as Brazil, China, India and Saudi Arabia are all “more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population.” It’s not hard to see how this could skew results in their favour.

Bryn Mawr
Professor Marc Schulz, Associate Director, Harvard Study of Adult Development and Sue Kardas PhD 1971 Chair in Psychology at Bryn Mawr CollegeBryn Mawr

Even if Ipsos’s survey might have more questionable results, “it's always interesting when something asks the same question repeatedly across time,” says Marc Schulz, a Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College.

Schulz, and Professor Robert Waldinger are the associate director and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of human happiness in academic history.

Since 1938, a team has tracked a group of individuals across their lives and the lives of their offspring to see what has affected their happiness. Schulz and Waldinger, the current leaders of the study have released a book on the eight decade investigation’s findings, ‘The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness’.

The secret to Finnish and Chinese happiness

Suffice to say, Schulz knows a lot about happiness. When considering why Finland have topped the UN study for six years in a row, Schulz remarks on how social support is often prioritised in Scandinavian countries. “Their data suggests that social connections are important. So one of the best predictors of happiness in the world happiness reports is if you have someone you can rely on when you need help.”

Why then, is the stereotypical idea of Scandinavia – exemplified by Scandi-drama – that of a serious people among desolate cold landscapes? Schulz suggests that while named the “World Happiness Report”, the two organisations are actually more concerned with life satisfaction in their questioning. This is where Finland and Scandinavian countries excel, with plenty of social support, predictability and fairness in society, as well as lower levels of income inequality.

Who wouldn't be happy in a Finnish saunaCanva

So that explains Finland topping the UN’s charts. What about Ipsos’s claim that China and Saudi Arabia are the happiest countries though? While there is some question about the reliability of the data those countries supplied to Ipsos, there are still some reasons to suggest these countries might have decent levels of satisfaction.

Both countries have authoritarian states and are guilty of human rights abuses, but for the population that isn’t directly affected, the political make-up of their country is a far less significant factor in the average person’s life satisfaction. The UN’s report shows that corruption and unfairness will impact a person’s satisfaction, but are less significant factors than social support. Countries like China have collectivist cultures, meaning social circles and communities are more likely to look after each other.

For a country to excel on either the UN or Ipsos’s study, the key barometer seems to be the social support people have. It’s the key tenet of Schulz’s research with the Harvard Study of Adult Development. They discovered that, by and large, good relationships keep people healthier to live longer and happier lives.

Relationships are the key

In both global surveys, there’s a trend towards the world getting happier, yet a casual glance at social media or the news would make you think that today is a nadir of life dissatisfaction. Western economies are falling apart, democratic institutions are failing and the climate is edging towards disaster. Yet, Schulz points out that while it’s hard to make comparisons over time, the situation for the people featured at the beginning of the Harvard study was far from rosy.

“They were in college at the time when World War Two broke out, and 91 per cent of them served in the military. Almost all of them describe this as the scariest and worst experience of their lives,” Schulz says. It’s easy to forget that for that generation, what immediately followed was a US split by a fight for civil rights and a Cold War.

There is one difference though, that Schulz notes with our current generation – technology. “The internet has connected us in ways that are helpful, but also in some ways that have contributed to our experience of loneliness,” he says.

For friends and family who move away from local neighbourhoods, technology is invaluable in keeping closer connections than ever before. The flipside is we are now aware of people from far different socio-economic statuses to us than ever before. “In the old days, you could look down your block, see what the other houses looked like, and what people had in their yards to figure out whether you had as much as other people. These days, you go on the internet and you can look at what everyone has across the whole world.”

Lonely on the phoneCanva

The ways in which social media sites select information that is interesting to us based on our previous behaviour also exacerbates our sense of difference. As political information is curated into different groups of people’s news feeds, greater social division is sown.


What troubles Schulz most though goes back to the single biggest revelation from his study – the importance of social connection. Communication mediated through screens isn’t a perfect replica of true in-person communication. Schulz is particularly worried about the dampening down of human interaction through technology mediums.

“We all have to deal in-person in real time with differences of opinion. And we have to figure out how to do that. Technology has given people a way to not do a lot of that work in real time. I think over time, that may make us less able to navigate some of those challenges,” he says.

The message is clear, and it’s the driving principle of his and Waldinger’s book and the study’s data: “relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout our lifespan,” he says.

“People just really want to be understood and heard and supported in their lives. When we talk about connection, we're talking about those kinds of connections, places where we feel like someone knows us and that they have our back in life,” Schulz says. Connection is good for both emotional well being, “and maybe even more surprising, it has physical benefits for us as well.”

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