- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
And the numbers are in: Norway is the happiest country in the world. That’s according to the fifth annual United Nations World Happiness Report.
The report tracks global well-being by asking people in 155 countries to rank their quality of life on a scale of 1 to 10. From there, researchers crunched numbers by country, measuring factors like social support, generosity, health and life expectancy rates, perceived freedom to make life choices, corruption levels, poverty levels, and GDP per capita (because even though money can’t buy happiness, it sure can help.)
Norway took the top spot for the first time ever. It ranked fourth in the last two years, but it leapt over three-time champion Denmark to steal the title.
Behind Norway comes — surprise surprise — a lot more annoyingly perfect Nordic countries. Rounding out the top 10 are Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden. The United States came in 14th, falling behind one place from last year.
But the report’s not just about bragging rights. Experts say the research showcases how government leaders can change policies to improve their citizens’ happiness. “As demonstrated by many countries, this report gives evidence that happiness is a result of creating strong social foundations. It’s time to build social trust and healthy lives, not guns or walls. Let’s hold our leaders to this fact,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network initiative that released the report.
The proof is in the Norwegian pudding. Norway is flush with cash from its massive oil sector. But it has dodged the resource curse stereotype by investing its oil proceeds back into the country’s social structure. “By choosing to produce oil deliberately and investing the proceeds for the benefit of future generations, Norway has protected itself from the volatile ups and downs of many other oil-rich economies,” said Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia. “This emphasis on the future over the present is made easier by high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance,” he added.
African countries rank among the most unhappy in the world. Eight out of 10 of the bottom-ranked countries are African, with the other two being war-torn Syria and Yemen. Researchers devoted an entire chapter of the report to explain this phenomenon, and concluded it wasn’t all bad news. “Africa’s optimism may be exceptional,” researchers wrote. Citing the continent’s massive young and hopeful population, “this optimism might serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy for the continent,” researchers concluded.
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