Skip to main content

Two Nickels and a Vote Go a Long Way

The happiest place on Earth ain't Disneyland; it's Denmark. And the least happy (hint: this one's easier than you think)? It's Zimbabwe.

This is according to the World Values Survey, a measurement taken since 1981 and released today. Analysis of the data was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. You may recall the cover story of the second edition of Miller-McCune magazine, in which we asked "Should the Government Make Us Happy?"

One key finding that helps address our question: Being in a democracy helps a lot. Another: Happiness levels are rising. Being poor and having a president-for-life, on the other hand: not so good.

Researchers fanned out to 97 countries (representing 90 percent of the Earth's population) and asked subjects how happy they were (specifically, very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not at all happy). Once people answered that question, which came at the begging of the survey, we suspect happiness dipped a bit as dozens and dozens more questions followed, on topics ranging from education, politics, religion and finances to opinions about cheating on taxes, the role of science, tolerance and poor sanitation.

About the only question not on the survey is the one we asked, but in the aggregate the survey makes a fine proxy for our inquiry.

Denmark came in first on the index of "subjective well-being," followed by Puerto Rico (guess that independence movement was more successful than reported), Colombia, Iceland and Northern Ireland. Canada came in ninth, the U.S. 15th (between New Zealand and Guatemala) and Mexico 17th.

"Though by no means the happiest country in the world, from a global perspective the U.S. looks pretty good," survey director Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, was quoted as saying in a release from the NSF. "The country is not only prosperous; it ranks relatively high in gender equality, tolerance of ethnic and social diversity and has high levels of political freedom.

"... Americans' dissatisfaction with the country's current direction pulls down their sense of subjective well-being. But this is partly offset by other factors. The fact that Americans live in a free and tolerant society has more impact on happiness than economic prosperity or even additional income.

"Ultimately, the most important determinant of happiness is the extent to which people have free choice in how to live their lives."

Up until Macedonia (No. 79), all countries were as a whole happy or satisfied with life.

On the downside, membership in the Soviet Union seems a real downer. Of countries reporting overall unhappiness, nine were in the Soviet Union and two were in the Warsaw Bloc.

And as to the Miller-McCune question: "To some extent, well-designed social policy can help raise U.S. happiness levels even more," Inglehart continued in the NSF release. "Policies that help increase the society's sense of solidarity and tolerance may also help."