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Danes may be the world’s happiest, but we’re pretty close

Perhaps Prince Hamlet became melancholy because something was "rotten in the state of Denmark." Everything in Shakespeare's play suggests a country full of "gloomy Danes" was a troubled place.

These days, Danes are the happiest people on Earth. Or so figures the annual World Happiness Report, a survey of 156 countries recently published by three economists, including Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia.

The World Happiness Report, if you'll pardon the phrase, is fun. Why, you keep asking while reading it, are the people of this or that country so happy whereas others are not? Americans, we keep hearing in their endless political campaign, are angry, riled up, fearful. Yet the report puts Americans 13th on the happiness index; if they're as unhappy as the news media suggests, think about the people in countries below them.

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The report is serious business, too, based on good methodology around answers to six measurements of happiness. These are: gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption.

There could be other measurements, such as security against crime and violence, social mobility, political stability, employment satisfaction or pride in country or community. No matter, the report's six categories are as good as any. They measure up against those used by other studies of what makes countries happy.

Why study happiness? In part, because conventional economics (the "dismal science") is dry and tends to focus on material well-being. Economics purports to study humanity, but it often seems content to kick out the humans.

Psychologists and others, including theologians of course, can attest that material things alone do not necessarily make people happy. Material affluence helps, but it does not count for everything, which is what the World Happiness Report shows in a rough sort of way.

So if Danes are the happiest people, where are Canadians? Turns out we stand sixth over all. And our happiness doesn't derive from the relatively new "sunny ways" government, since the survey was taken from 2013 to 2015, when we were governed by the gloomy Stephen Harper.

The gap between Denmark and Canada is small. Quite likely, Canada doesn't score first in any of the six categories but rather high enough in all to wind up sixth. Coming in No. 6 out of 157 countries isn't half bad, to use typical Canadian understatement (now sadly being eroded by boastful politicians).

Since 2005-07, Canadians' happiness has barely budged. Who got happier from 2005-07 (measured in an earlier survey) to 2013-15? A few unlikely places such as Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Moldova. But also Uzbekistan, ruled by a dictator, and – wait for it – Russia.

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The Russians cannot, one thinks, have become happier about their country's recent economic standing, what with inflation high and growth low. Nor could they be pleased with the rampant corruption in the country, unless they had become inured to it long ago, which is likely. Maybe they are happier with their belief in Russia's enhanced standing in the world through its grab of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. Every hour, the propagandistic, Putin-controlled media tell Russians how proud they should be. And happy, too. As noted, economics does not entirely drive happiness.

Broadly speaking, the authors of the report suggest that people are happier when inequalities are attenuated.

The five happiest countries would suggest a link: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland. But then Canada and Australia have greater income inequality than the top five countries but are almost as happy. Mexico, which has huge income inequalities, stands 21st on the index.

Another broad generalization: Latin America and the Caribbean are happier than Asia. Maybe Latinos do have more fun. Fourteen of the top 50 happiest countries are in Latin America or the Caribbean, compared with four from Asia, plus Australia and New Zealand. China comes 83rd; Taiwan 35th. No wonder so few Taiwanese want to become part of China.

The World Happiness Report arrives on the eve of the Canadian budget. The report suggests that economic well-being counts, but not for everything. And it seems happiness has a lot to do with aspects of society in which government plays no role.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More


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