The happiest countries in the world

The OECD report on life satisfaction in the developed world measured more than 30 sets of data in 11 different categories, including education, health and employment.

For the second year in a row, 24/7 Wall St. examined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report on life satisfaction in the developed world. Economic prosperity, health and a strong social support network continue to correspond highly with happiness. Once again, the United States fails to make the top 10 happiest nations in the world, while countries like Australia, Israel and all of the Scandinavian nations do.

The OECD measured more than 30 sets of data in 11 different categories, including education, health and employment. The study also asked residents of each country to rank, on a scale of 1 to 10, their general satisfaction with their lives. 24/7 Wall St. examined the 10 countries with the highest life satisfaction scores to find the strongest factors related to happiness.

Economic prosperity appears to be one of the strongest factors that relates to overall life satisfaction. Of the 10 countries with the highest levels of happiness, nine have personal incomes that are higher than the OECD average. Eight of them have among the highest disposable incomes among developed nations.

In addition, the overall regional economies of these 10 nations appear to be doing exceptionally well. Government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product in these countries is either among the smallest in the developed world, or these nations are actually running a surplus. Norway, which has the second-highest satisfaction score, has a government surplus of 162.5% of its GDP.

Employment is one of the most obvious causes of satisfaction, according to Matthias Rumpf, OECD’s chief media officer, especially long-term employment and job stability. Of the 10 countries with the highest job satisfaction rates, nine are among the 15 with the lowest long-term unemployment rates — the percentage of the population that has been unemployed for more than a year. “Those who are unemployed are generally not very happy,” Rumpf says. And long-term unemployment is even worse, he explains. While being between jobs can affect a person, “the longer you are unemployed, the worse it gets.”

After economic stability, physical and social well-being are the largest determinants for happiness. When it comes to self-reported health, eight of the 10 countries have a higher rate of citizens reporting good health than the OECD average of 70%. All but one have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average of 79.8 years. When it comes to having a strong social support network, seven of the countries have among the largest percentage of residents reporting having a friend or relative they could rely on in a case of need.

Not surprisingly, having enough leisure time affects a person’s mental health and strongly impacts happiness. According to the report, while data is incomplete, the majority of the countries with a strong sense of well-being have more leisure time each day than the OECD average of 14.76 hours (this includes sleep). The citizens of Denmark, the happiest country, have the most leisure time available per day, at 16.06 hours.

The U.S. ranks 11th in life satisfaction, just missing the top 10. This suggests that while some of these categories may impact happiness, they do not guarantee it. Despite its above-average score, the U.S. has the highest rate of disposable income in the OECD and an extremely high rate of self-reported good health. Meanwhile, the U.S. has a particularly low life expectancy for developed nations, which at 78.7 years is worse than 26 other developed nations. The U.S. also has a low job security rate and a relatively high long-term unemployment rate.

Examining 34 separate member nations, a number of emerging economies, and two additional participating countries — Brazil and Russia — the OECD’s 2012 Better Life Index report measured more than 30 indices in 11 separate categories: housing, income, jobs, community, education, the environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 countries in which residents reported personal well-being at an average of 7.2 out of 10 or better.

These are the happiest countries in the world.

1. Denmark
> Life satisfaction score: 7.8
> Employment rate: 73% (6th highest)
> Self-reported good health: 71% (17th highest)
> Employees working long hours: 1.92% (4th lowest)
> Disposable income: $23,213 (15th lowest)
> Educational attainment: 76% (18th lowest)
> Life expectancy: 79.3 (11th lowest)

Denmark tops the OECD ranking as the country with the most satisfied citizens among the countries studied by the OECD. At first glance, the reason is not obvious. Denmark ranks no higher than fourth in any of the categories that appear to correlate strongly with overall satisfaction. Yet, in addition to the OECD, organizations such as the World Map of Happiness and the World Database of Happiness have consistently put Denmark at the top of their list of the world’s happiest countries. A high employment rate of 73% and a low percentage of 1.92% of employees working long hours contribute to high satisfaction levels. But overall, it is hard to pin down why those Danes are so darn happy.

2. Norway
> Life satisfaction score: 7.6
> Employment rate: 75% (4th highest)
> Self-reported good health: 80% (8th highest)
> Employees working long hours: 2.66% (5th lowest)
> Disposable income: $30,465 (3rd highest)
> Educational attainment: 81% (tied - 15th highest)
> Life expectancy:81.2 (10th highest)

Of all the nations examined in the OECD’s report, Norway is among the most financially secure. Of working-age adults, 75% are employed — the fourth-best rate. Also, the average household disposable income is $30,645, the third highest among OECD nations. Norway also significantly outspends almost all other surveyed nations on health care, allocating $5,003 per person per year. This is well above the average for OECD nations of $3,060 per person per year. Norway also has one of the healthiest populations, with a life expectancy of 81.2 years and 80% claiming to be in “good” or “very good” health. Showcasing its economic strength, Norway is able to provide quality public health and education services while maintaining a budget surplus of 162.5% of GDP and an AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s Rating Services.

3. Netherlands
> Life satisfaction score: 7.5
> Employment rate: 75% (tied - 3rd highest)
> Self-reported good health: 77% (11th highest)
> Employees working long hours: 0.68% (2nd lowest)
> Disposable income: $25,740 (13th highest)
> Educational attainment: 73% (15th lowest)
> Life expectancy: 80.8 (14th highest)

The Dutch government is heavily involved in internal economic affairs, playing a “significant role … pertaining to almost every aspect of economic activity,” according to the U.S. Department of State. Judging by Netherlands’ 75% employment rate — the third highest among those surveyed — this regulated, monitored economy has thrived in recent years. Of those employed, only 0.68% work longer than 50 hours a week — the second-lowest percentage among those surveyed. By contrast, 10.86% of U.S. workers eclipse the 50 hour mark. The Dutch also rank among the top 15 in self-reported good health, life expectancy and disposable income.


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