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US Drops out of Top 20 Happiest Countries in New Report

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This year’s World Happiness Report focuses on happiness at various ages and stages through life—with some surprising results.

All people on Earth strive to be happy. But what is happiness? How does it differ for people across cultures and at different ages? How is happiness measured?

A new report answers these questions by examining happiness worldwide and the factors that make life worth living.

What Is the World Happiness Report?

It’s hard to imagine anything more meaningful than research exploring happiness and what makes for a good life.

A partnership between Gallup, Oxford University, and the United Nations seeks the answers. The group publishes The World Happiness Report using data from the Gallup World Poll and the analysis of worldwide researchers. The report offers insights into the state of happiness for people all over the planet.

This year’s report examines happiness at various ages and stages throughout life. Past reports have focused on various aspects of happiness—for example, the 2020 report dedicated a chapter to exploring why Nordic countries are consistently the happiest in the world. The 2019 report devoted a chapter to the role of digital media and addiction in the unhappiness of those in the United States. The 2017 report dedicated a chapter to the key determinants of happiness and misery and one on restoring American happiness—a chapter that might be worth revisiting.
The first happiness report, released in 2012, highlighted a worldwide demand that happiness and the absence of misery be given more attention in creating government policy.
The report’s creators believe that “the best measure of progress is the happiness of people worldwide.”

Insights from 2024

One of the most striking insights from this year’s report was the difference in happiness between the young and old.

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John F. Helliwell is an emeritus professor of economics at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia, and a founding editor of the World Happiness Report. He states in the report that the wide range of data about the quality of life worldwide gathered by the Gallup World Poll, going back to 2006, offers enough data to separate happiness patterns into ages through different generations.

“We found some pretty striking results. There is a great variety among countries in the relative happiness of the younger, older, and in-between populations. Hence the global happiness rankings are quite different for the young and the old, to an extent that has changed a lot over the last dozen years.”

Overall, the report found that happiness among young people declined significantly in North America. The United States’s fall out of the top twenty happiest countries this year was primarily due to a substantial decrease in the well-being experienced by younger people—specifically, Americans under thirty.

“Once again the World Happiness Report uncovers some special empirical insights at the cutting edge of the wellbeing research frontier,” said Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, director of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and an editor of the World Happiness Report. “Piecing together the available data on the wellbeing of children and adolescents around the world, we documented disconcerting drops especially in North America and Western Europe. To think that, in some parts of the world, children are already experiencing the equivalent of a mid-life crisis demands immediate policy action.”

In the United States and Canada, older people—those over 60—ranked higher in happiness than young people, with a gap of 50 or more places than those under the age of thirty. However, it’s the reverse in areas such as Central and Eastern Europe, with many happiness rankings favoring the young over the old. (p. 11)

The report looked at happiness in different generations, finding that those born before 1965 (Boomers) were generally happier than young people born after 1980 (Millennials). Millennials’ life satisfaction decreases yearly, with Boomers’ increasing as they age.

On the list of happiest countries, Finland takes the number one spot, followed by Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden. Canada comes in at number 15, the United Kingdom at 20, and the United States slides down to number 23 after remaining in the top twenty since the report’s inception in 2012. China is number sixty on the list, Russia comes in at 72, many African nations round out the bottom of the list, and Afghanistan drops to last place this year at 143. (p. 15)

How Does the Report Measure Happiness?

One way the report measures happiness is by asking each respondent to evaluate their own life using the Cantril Ladder. Picture a ladder with a ten at the top, representing the best possible life you can imagine, and a zero at the bottom, representing your worst possible life. People are asked where on the ladder they see their current lives on a scale from zero to ten. The rankings are based on a three-year average of these evaluations, using approximately 1,000 respondents annually in each country. (p. 13)

Six variables help to explain life evaluations:

  1. Social support (the number one predictor of happiness)
  2. GDP (gross domestic product) per capita
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make life choices
  5. Generosity (how charitable people are)
  6. The absence of corruption in governments and businesses—at least how it is perceived

The study notes that “happiness rankings are not based on any index of these six factors. Rather, scores are based on individuals’ own assessments of their lives, in particular their answers to the single-item Cantril ladder life-evaluation question.” (p.14)

Final Thoughts

Collecting and analyzing this data is essential to understanding our perceptions about the world and what makes people thrive. It can also inform governments how to create policies to support the best life possible for its people.

“Effective policymaking relies on solid data, yet there remains a significant lack of it in various parts of the world,” said John Clifton, Gallup’s CEO. “Today’s World Happiness Report attempts to bridge some of these gaps by offering insights into people’s perceptions of life on Earth. It offers more than just national rankings; it provides analytics and advice for evidence-based planning and policymaking. Our role in research on World Happiness is a natural fit with our longstanding mission: providing leaders with the right information about what people say makes life worthwhile.”

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