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World Happiness Report Confirms That Inequality Is Bad for Global Well-Being

The goal of the report is to “enable policies that support better lives.”

Copenhagen, Denmark. You would be happy if you lived here. Image by GuoJunjun via Wikimedia Commons.

On March 20 we will all have the chance to celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness. In advance of that, the fourth “World Happiness Report” has been released, offering a measure of personal satisfaction in 157 countries.


The results are—well, they’re ok. Denmark was honored with the distinction of having the happiest residents for the third time, with Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland rounding out the top five spots. And as unsurprising as it is to see Scandinavians registering the highest amount of satisfaction with their lives, the countries with the least happy populations feel equally predictable: In descending order, Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria, and Burundi fill out the bottom of the rankings, with neighboring countries in their regions filling the lowest 50 slots. In the measure of which country’s happiness level has fallen furthest since the last report, poor Greece took the biggest hit, likely thanks to its ongoing economic crisis.

The report is assembled by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is made up of economists, psychologists, and public health experts from around the world. The collective was formed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The goal of the reports is to use data on human happiness and research into subjective measures of well-being to “enable policies that support better lives.” Around 3,000 respondents from each of the countries surveyed were asked questions to help them evaluate their lives on a scale of zero to 10, with zero indicating the unhappiest possible sentiment.

The biggest difference between the fourth edition of the study and its predecessors is the assessment of how inequality affects well-being across various countries. Intuitively, researchers have found that people are happier when they live in populations with less inequality. The results of the report, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, find that these inequality gaps are growing, not shrinking.

“There has been increased inequality of happiness within most countries, almost all regions, and for the world as a whole,” reads the report. “Only one-tenth of countries showed a significant reduction in happiness inequality, while more than half showed a significant increase. The world as a whole and 8 of 10 global regions showed significant increases in well-being inequality from 2005-2011 to 2012-2015. We also found evidence that greater inequality of well-being contributes to lower average well-being.”

The report's top countries by happiness. Image via the 2016 World Happiness Report

The study points out that four national governments have appointed ministers of happiness—those in Bhutan, Ecuador, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela—and that other “sub-national” governing bodies are doing the same in order to improve people’s happiness levels. The problem with research like this is that it is inherently based on the subjective assessments of individuals talking about their own happiness, and how people evaluate their lives varies widely from country to country. But it can hardly be argued that it’s a bad idea for state and local governments to form happiness task forces, of sorts, to improve the well-being of citizens.

To close the report, the contributing scientists offered a hopeful note, saying, “Happiness is the product of many facets of society. Income per capita matters, as economists emphasize, but so too do social conditions, work conditions, health, pollution, and values (e.g., generosity) … Individual freedom matters for happiness, but among many objectives and values, not to the exclusion of those other considerations. Sustainable development and related holistic concepts (such as Pope Francis’s integral human development) are a better overarching guide to human well-being than the single-minded pursuit of income, or economic freedom, or other one-dimensional objectives.”