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Where are the world's happiest people, and what makes them so upbeat?

Switzerland is in the top spot – and Canada fares well too, landing in fifth place of 158 nations, according to the third world happiness report, which analyzes well-being through measures such as life expectancy, per capita incomes and perceptions of corruption.

The study comes as more countries, such as the United Kingdom, are looking at broader indicators, beyond GDP, to track their progress and inform how to shape policy. The report, released Thursday, is edited by John Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics at University of British Columbia, Richard Layard, professor at the London School of Economics and Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute.

"We are encouraged that more and more governments around the world are listening and responding with policies that put well-being first," said Prof. Helliwell. "Countries with strong social and institutional capital not only support greater well-being, but are more resilient to social and economic crises."

Canada has moved up a notch from its last report in 2013. Compared to its southern neighbour, "the U.S. is higher on GDP per capita, but Canada is higher on all five of the remaining variables: healthy life expectancy, social support, corruption, generosity, and freedom to make life choices," noted Prof. Helliwell. "The net effect of the latter is much larger than the former, putting Canada significantly higher than the U.S."

The rankings, based partly on the Gallup World Poll, reflect issues such as social supports, life expectancy, GDP per capita, generosity, perceptions of corruption and "freedom to make life choices." (One of the indicators, for example, reflects the share of respondents who say they have someone to count on in times of crisis. In this measure, Iceland and Ireland fare best).

The findings come in the same month as the release of another global report on well-being, called the Social Progress Index. It looked at measures such as crime, health and social inclusion, and ranked Canada sixth of 133 countries.

Wealthier, northern countries lead the rankings in the happiness report. It shows Switzerland is on top, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada and Finland. The United States is in 15th place. Togo, Burundi and war-torn Syria are at the bottom.

Incomes are part – but not all – of the reason for higher levels of well-being. Costa Ricans consistently score highly in terms of well-being, and this index puts them in 12th place. Mexico and Brazil are in the top 20. People in Panama appear to be happier than those in France, while citizens in Ecuador are more upbeat than those in Hong Kong.

The index also looked at how happiness levels changed between 2005-2007 and 2012-2014 – before and after the global economic downturn. Happiness levels in Canada are about the same. Nicaragua posted the biggest gains in happiness levels in that time. Greece – hit by high joblessness and austerity measures – had the biggest plunge.

The report also examined happiness by age and gender. It found men and women report similar levels of life satisfaction in Canada, though women are slightly more happy. "Despite what people may think about gender inequality, on the happiness front [the difference between men and women] is generally very small," said Nicole Fortin, UBC professor who wrote the chapter on gender and age.

In English-speaking countries, levels of happiness tend to rise as people age, with those near or in retirement the most happy.

The report comes in the same week Statistics Canada published a study on life satisfaction among Canadian cities. It found people in Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and St. John's report the highest degrees of satisfaction, while those in big cities – Toronto and Vancouver – are less satisfied.

Some economists are developing these types of broader measures of well-being to encourage policy makers to look beyond GDP in setting goals and measuring success. Others have countered that these measures are bound to be subjective, and that GDP remains the best indicator of a country's progress.

The authors, who produced the report for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, said they hope the report will "underscore the fruitfulness of using happiness measurements for guiding policy making and for helping to assess the overall well-being in each society."

"The aspiration of society is the flourishing of its members," said Prof. Sachs in a release. The study "gives evidence on how to achieve societal well-being. It's not by money alone, but also by fairness, honesty, trust, and good health."

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