The World Happiness Report for 2019 has been released, with Finland remaining in the top spot, ahead of Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands.

By Daniel Herborn


Posted on March 25, 2019

Finland received a score of 7.769 in the report, which ranks 156 countries on criteria including GDP per capital, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption.

The report is compiled annually by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Despite its strong economy, the US ranked in 19th place, down one spot from last year. Although US happiness levels have improved since the global financial crisis, they have not rebounded to the happiness levels of the 1990s. The UK was at number #15, behind Australia at #11.

At the other end of the list, war-torn South Sudan was named as the unhappiest nation.

Why did Finland rank as the happiest country?

Finland performed well on all the indicia in the report but was particularly strong on the ‘generosity’ scale. The nation has extremely high levels of charitable giving and volunteering; almost a third of its citizens said they had done volunteer work for a charity in the last month. Around half of all Finns give money to charity regularly.

Author Dan Buettner said it was no surprise to see the Scandinavian countries once again dominate the upper reaches of the list. “It’s like the same people show up to the same parties but switch chairs around,” Buettner said of the latest list.

“A few things that these places have in common how positively people report on their lives. They have free or close to free access to healthcare, which then connects to a higher healthy life expectancy.”

Many commentators have linked Finland’s strong social support network to its high levels of happiness. Along with its Scandinavian neighbours, it ranks highly for its social safety net, education system and commitment to gender equality. The country also offers high levels of personal safety and easy access to nature.

Others have pointed to Finland’s progressive and redistributive tax system which pays for free childcare, quality healthcare and one of the world’s most most generous parental leave schemes as contributors to its happiness.

The country has also built up excellent standards of governance; Transparency International recently ranked Finland third in a survey of the least corrupt nations. Over 80% of Finns say they trust institutions such as the police, education and healthcare.

A more abstract explanation for Finland’s consistently high scores for national happiness may lie in the Finnish concept of Sisu. Roughly translated to resilience or stoicism, the concept is seen as a defining national trait.

It involves embracing the uncomfortable, including bathing in ice cold waters during Finland’s chilly winter and partaking in communal saunas. Locals swear by both for their apparent benefits to circulatory health as well as more intangible outcomes such as building up intestinal fortitude.

The US: growing economy, declining happiness

Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute, said the worldwide trend showing a reduction in average happiness despite GDP per capita growing “is proof that measuring happiness and life satisfaction in terms of economic wealth alone is not at all sufficient”.

Wiking said the US was experiencing a “social crisis” with many Americans feeling lower levels of trust towards their fellow citizens.

“The divide between rich and poor also creates an erosion of the cohesion and trust between people, which is so vital for the feeling of safety and security and therefore for the overall happiness level of the American people,” Wiking said.

The report also linked unhappiness in the US to skyrocketing levels of digital media use, especially among adolescents. By 2017, the report says the average US 12th grader (17 or 18 years old) spent more than six hours of each day on the internet, social media and texting. By last year, 95% of US teenagers had a smartphone and 45% said they were online “almost constantly”. This directly correlated to a lack of time spent with other people and a reported lack of happiness.

Addiction was another factor driving down happiness in the US; the report notes: “The prevalence of addictions in U.S. society seems to be on the rise, perhaps dramatically. These addictions, in turn, seem to be causing considerable unhappiness and even depression.”

These addictions range from dependence on narcotics and alcohol to workaholism, gambling addictions and overuse of the internet and video games, the report says.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, who contributed to the report, told HuffPost that the US continued to pursue the wrong goals to increase its happiness. “We keep chasing economic growth as the holy grail, but it’s not bringing well-being for our country,” he said. “We should…stop our addiction to GDP growth as our sole or primary indicator of how we’re doing.”

Header image credit: Carlos “Grury” Santos