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You Can’t Buy Happiness, But You Can Measure It

Report finds that Denmark is the world's happiest country and Burundi is its least.

Laughter consultant Robin Graham and Abena Agyeman attempt to bring smiles and happiness to shoppers in Manchester city centre as part of the world laughter pledge on January 24, 2009 in Manchester, England.  Graham is launching the World Laughter Pledge, an attempt to make everyone in the world laugh together every Saturday at 9am in their respective time zone. Robin hopes that through his website, www.worldlaughterpledge.org, the  laughter wave will ripple around the world bringing happiness and peace.
Laughter consultant Robin Graham and Abena Agyeman attempt to bring smiles and happiness to shoppers in Manchester city centre as part of the world laughter pledge on January 24, 2009 in Manchester, England. Graham is launching the World Laughter Pledge, an attempt to make everyone in the world laugh together every Saturday at 9am in their respective time zone. Robin hopes that through his website, www.worldlaughterpledge.org, the laughter wave will ripple around the world bringing happiness and peace.

Here are some things that probably cause unhappiness: government corruption, experiencing general social inequality, and calling Burundi home. At least that’s according to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which on Wednesday published its annual World Happiness Report in conjunction with the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

The report, which was first issued in 2012, aims to scientifically measure life satisfaction and well-being worldwide. It also ranks countries by happiness levels.

Unsurprisingly, the happiest countries tend to be rich, Western democracies — with Denmark at the top, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway. The countries with the lowest reported levels of happiness are Burundi and Syria. Syria is embroiled in a bloody five-year civil war, and Burundi has long been one of the hungriest countries in the world, even before conflict broke out there last year when the president insisted on a third term.

But stability and wealth are not always sure-fire indicators of well-being. El Salvador, for example, has the highest murder rate in the world but outranks Japan, a relatively safe and well-off country, in this year’s happiness index. The report attributes happiness levels to six key variables: GDP, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, head of the SDSN and special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told Reuters on Wednesday that the report contains a strong message for the United States, which ranks 13 out of 157 countries in overall happiness.

“For a society that just chases money, we are chasing the wrong things,” he said. “Our social fabric is deteriorating, social trust is deteriorating, faith in government is deteriorating.”

Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. @megan_alpert

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