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Happiness and Government Around the World

Happiness might be determined by geography.

Adrian White and colleagues at Leicester University’s School of Psychology analyzed data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other databases to create a global perspective of well-being. The “happiest place on earth” turns out to be Denmark, followed closely by Switzerland and Austria. Zimbabwe and Burundi ranked at the bottom. The United States came in 23rd.

A nation’s health levels were most closely associated with happiness, followed by gross domestic product (GDP) and education. The researchers say that while these measures of happiness are not perfect, they are the best we have so far, and politicians now are talking of using them to measure the relative performance of each country and changes in its happiness due to war, famine or national success.

Life satisfaction currently is a hot topic in economics and psychology.

“There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people,” White said. “However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good health care, a higher GDP per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy.”

Researchers were surprised to see Asian countries scoring so low, with Japan 90th and India 125th. Both countries are thought to have a strong national identity, which previously has been associated with well-being.

Following the map’s publication, researchers led by Professor Kaare Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark set out to discover the reasons for such a high level of happiness in their country. The team reported in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal that based on surveys spanning more than 30 years, more than two-thirds of Danes are ‘very satisfied’ with their lives.

But why are Danes happier than people in Sweden and Finland? The team looked for an answer in literature, statistics, and common knowledge. Prowess in sports is one of their suggestions. They note that Denmark bested Germany in the 1992 European football championships and that this “put Danes in such a state of euphoria that the country has not been the same since.” In fact, they found that life satisfaction reached a plateau in Denmark after 1992.

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Data from other countries show that stock market prices can be linked to the performance of national sports teams, and that heart disease deaths rise when a widely-supported team loses. But the most likely reason, in the researchers’ opinions, is that while Danes are very satisfied, their expectations for the coming year are low, ranking among the bottom half.

“It has been argued that great expectations of favorable life circumstances in the future should be associated with life satisfaction, but if the expectations are unrealistically high they could also be the basis of disappointment and low life satisfaction,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, Italy and Greece, which rank lowest on life satisfaction, rank high on expectations for the year to come; together with Swedes and Finns they rank at the top.”

The researchers also highlight other reasons for Danes to be happy. These include high levels of exercise, good self-reported (although not objective) health, and equality of income.

“The causes of the stolid depth of Danish well-being are undoubtedly multifactorial,” the British Medical Journal article stated. “The key factor seems to be that Danes have consistently low (and indubitably realistic) expectations for the year to come. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”


Christensen K., Herskind A. M. and Vaupel J. W. Why Danes are smug: comparative study of life satisfaction in the European Union. British Medical Journal Vol. 333, December 23, 2006, pp. 1289-91.

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Happiness and Government Around the World

Jane Collingwood

Jane Collingwood is a longtime regular contributing journalist to Psych Central, focusing on topics of mental health and dissecting recent research findings.

APA Reference
Collingwood, J. (2020). Happiness and Government Around the World. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
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