What's the World's Happiest Country? Does it Matter?

Students in Nanjing, China, make a huge smiley face. Sean Yong / REUTERS

Switzerland is the world's cheeriest country, according to a report released today by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, launched by the United Nations. Maybe it's the chocolate.

Iceland came in second in the ranking, followed by Denmark and Norway. Canada moved up two spots from last year to claim fifth. This is the third time the group has released the list since 2012.

The ranking was created by "leading experts across fields—economics, psychology, survey analysis, national statistics, health, public policy" and others, according to the organization. To come up with a happiness rating, the experts took into account a wide variety of metrics. "Six key variables explain three-quarters of the variation in annual national average scores over time and among countries: real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity," the group wrote in a statement.

In the World Happiness Report 2015 [PDF], each country received a score between 0 and 10. The average mark was a 5.1. Here is list of the top 50 countries, with the score in parentheses:

1. Switzerland (7.587)

2. Iceland (7.561)

3. Denmark (7.527)

4. Norway (7.522)

5. Canada (7.427)

6. Finland (7.406)

7. Netherlands (7.378)

8. Sweden (7.364)

9. New Zealand (7.286)

10. Australia (7.284)

11. Israel (7.278)

12. Costa Rica (7.226)

13. Austria (7.200)

14. Mexico (7.187)

15. United States (7.119)

16. Brazil (6.983)

17. Luxembourg (6.946)

18. Ireland (6.940)

19. Belgium (6.937)

20. United Arab Emirates (6.901)

21. United Kingdom (6.867)

22. Oman (6.853)

23. Venezuela (6.810)

24. Singapore (6.798)

25. Panama (6.786)

26. Germany (6.75)

27. Chile (6.670)

28. Qatar (6.611)

29. France (6.575)

30. Argentina (6.574)

31. Czech Republic (6.505)

32. Uruguay (6.485)

33. Colombia (6.477)

34. Thailand (6.455)

35. Saudi Arabia (6.411)

36. Spain (6.329)

37. Malta (6.302)

38. Taiwan (6.298)

39. Kuwait (6.295)

40. Suriname (6.269)

41. Trinidad and Tobago (6.168)

42. El Salvador (6.130)

43. Guatemala (6.123)

44. Uzbekistan (6.003)

45. Slovakia (5.995)

46. Japan (5.987)

47. South Korea (5.984)

48. Ecuador (5.975)

49. Bahrain (5.960)

50. Italy (5.948)

It's worth noting that not everybody agrees that it's useful to measure happiness this way. In an interesting exchange at The Guardian, academic and writer William Davies notes that these kinds of reports are helpful when they identify "previously unnoticed suffering, such as that experienced by the unemployed" but "the problem is that it flips all too easily into a tool of social control. Faced with a choice between promoting happiness through political change—by reducing advertising or meaningless work, for example—and doing so through new behavioural or medical interventions, the latter invariably end up seeming most expedient."

For example, economist Richard Layard has argued that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people get over mental illness and get back to work, thus saving the government money. "It is then only a short step to forcing people to receive CBT, often as part of a workfare program or on pain of losing their disability benefits. The caring, listening, patient relationship of therapy can flip 180 degrees into yet another form of punishment to be visited on the weak. This is the slippery slope that well-intentioned happiness metrics are sitting on."

But others think such concerns are off-base, saying that happiness is worth measuring because this exercise helps quantify improvements to quality of life. "The aspiration of society is the flourishing of its members," says Jeffrey Sachs, director of the group that released the ranking. "This report gives evidence on how to achieve societal well-being. It's not by money alone, but also by fairness, honesty, trust and good health."

Some of the "happiest" countries also take the most antidepressants, particularly second-place Iceland, an irony that raises philosophical questions about what it means to be happy.

The world's happiest countries. This is how the Sustainable Development Solutions Network explains the chart. "Each of these bars is divided into seven segments. The first six sub-bars show how much each of the six key variables is calculated to contribute to that country’s ladder score, relative to that in a hypothetical country called Dystopia, so named because it has values equal to the world’s lowest national averages for 2012-2014 for each of the six key variables used in Table 2.1. We use Dystopia as a benchmark against which to compare each other country’s performance in terms of each of the six factors. This choice of benchmark permits every real country to have a non-negative contribution from each of the six factors." Sustainable Development Solutions Network