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Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands topped the list of happiest countries. But Canada fared well too, nabbing the fifth spot.

iStockphoto/iStockphoto

Canada is the fifth-happiest country in the world, according to a global study on the social and economic well-being of nations.

It finds the world has, broadly speaking, become a "little happier" in the past three decades, as living standards have risen. (One exception is the United States, where life satisfaction has not improved).

The happiest countries are all in Northern Europe – Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands. The least happy countries are all poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa – Togo, Benin, Central African Republic and Sierra Leone.

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But wealth alone doesn't make people happy. Rather, the first-ever World Happiness Report finds other key factors at play, too: political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are "together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries."

At the individual level, "good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and stable families are crucial," said the 155-page paper, co-edited by University of British Columbia economics professor John Helliwell.

Debate is growing over how best to measure the progress of countries – beyond gross domestic product – and how to set public policy to boost well-being and reduce misery. France, the United Kingdom and Bhutan are among several nations scrutinizing the topic more closely. The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, meantime, plans to promote standard methods of data collection in different countries.

Here are some of the report's findings:

•Happier countries tend to be richer ones. But more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.

•Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.

•Behaving well makes people happier.

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•Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer still in poorer countries.

•Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children.

•In advanced countries, women are happier than men, while the position in poorer countries is mixed.

•Happiness is lowest in middle age.

The report, released Monday, was commissioned for this week's United Nations Conference on Happiness. It is published by the Earth Institute and co-edited by the institute's director, Jeffrey Sachs.

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