Surprise: Countries With Less Inequality Have Happier Citizens

Nations with a strong social safety net were at the top of the ‘World Happiness Report’ rankings.
Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Roman Boed/Flickr)
Mar 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Janin is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The number 13 isn’t exactly known as lucky, but it’s one that Americans will have to get used to—at least for the next year. That’s where the United States landed in the rankings of the fourth annual World Happiness Report, an analysis of quality of life in 156 countries.

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an independent network of academics, government officials, and private-sector advisors launched by the United Nations in 2012, released the report late last week. This year the SDSN, which mobilizes scientific and technical expertise to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, focused on a new factor: how inequality affects quality of life.

“Income inequalities have been argued to be responsible for damage to other key supports for well-being, including social trust, safety, good governance, and both the average quality of and equal access to health and education—important, in turn, as supports for future generations to have more equal opportunities,” the report’s authors wrote.

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However, understanding inequality of well-being in various countries can help measure consequences of other inequality, such as health, education, freedom, and justice, according to the report.

Scandinavian countries continue to top the list thanks to their strong social safety net, including equal access to education and health care. Denmark took the top spot, with Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland rounding out the top five.

Although the United States, where roughly 22 percent of kids live in poverty, didn’t crack the top 10, its 13th-spot finish was two ticks higher than its 2015 ranking. Burundi, which has been wracked by political unrest, came in last.

Researchers examined six factors related to inequality: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (recent donations). The analysis found that differences in social support, income, and healthy life expectancy are the three most important contributors to happiness.

The findings support other research, such as the Prosperity Index by the U.K.-based Legatum Institute, that suggests a country’s wealth does not guarantee happiness.

Since the first World Happiness Report was published in 2012, Ecuador, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela have appointed “ministers of happiness.” Perhaps proving that one government official can’t compensate for a nation’s woes, Ecuador, which was ranked 48th in 2015, fell to the 51st spot this year.

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“Measuring self-reported happiness and achieving well-being should be on every nation’s agenda as they begin to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals,” Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and one of the report’s authors, said in a statement. “Indeed, the Goals themselves embody the very idea that human well-being should be nurtured through a holistic approach that combines economic, social, and environmental objectives. Rather than taking a narrow approach focused solely on economic growth, we should promote societies that are prosperous, just, and environmentally sustainable.”

Unfortunately, the disparity of happiness inequality around the world is only growing larger, according to the report. “Happiness inequality has increased significantly, comparing 2012–2015 to 2005–2011, in most countries, in almost all global regions, and for the population of the world as a whole,” the report’s authors wrote.