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Money really does buy happiness, in one map

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The third ever World Happiness Report — created by the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network and co-edited by economists John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs — is officially out. While the report includes more fascinating data on well-being around the world than I could ever list in full, its centerpiece is a ranking of countries by average happiness. This map summarizes the results:

happiness by country happiness report

(Vox/Joss Fong)

The report focuses less on momentary emotions ("Are you happy right now?" "Did you have a good day today?" etc.) than on people's evaluations of their lives, taken as a whole. It relies on Gallup polling, which asks respondents to imagine the best possible life for them and then rank their current lives on a 0 to 10 scale, relative to that best life. This question is known as "Cantril's ladder," and it's the standard way many researchers measure life satisfaction (as opposed to momentary happiness).

The most striking thing about the map is that people rich countries are, overall, considerably more satisfied with their lives than people in poor countries. That shouldn't be surprising. The weight of the evidence suggests that both momentary happiness and life satisfaction are heavily correlated with GDP per capita.

In fact, the World Happiness Report found that GDP per capita was one of the most important explanatory variables in determining national happiness, along with social support (if you have someone in your life you can count on), healthy life expectancy, freedom (answer to the question "Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?"), generosity ("Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?"), and government corruption. "Taken together," the authors write, "these six variables explain almost three-quarters of the variation in national annual average ladder scores among countries."

Here are the top 20 countries in the report:

  1. Switzerland (7.587)
  2. Iceland (7.561)
  3. Denmark (7.527)
  4. Norway (7.522)
  5. Canada (7.427)
  6. Finland (7.406)
  7. Netherlands (7.378)
  8. Sweden (7.364)
  9. New Zealand (7.286)
  10. Australia (7.284)
  11. Israel (7.278)
  12. Costa Rica (7.266)
  13. Austria (7.200)
  14. Mexico (7.187)
  15. United States (7.119)
  16. Brazil (6.983)
  17. Luxembourg (6.946)
  18. Ireland (6.940)
  19. Belgium (6.937)
  20. United Arab Emirates (6.901)

Here are the bottom 20:

  1. Togo (2.839)
  2. Burundi (2.906)
  3. Syria (3.006)
  4. Benin (3.340)
  5. Rwanda (3.465)
  6. Afghanistan (3.575)
  7. Burkina Faso (3.587)
  8. Ivory Coast (3.655)
  9. Guinea (3.656)
  10. Chad (3.667)
  11. Central African Republic (3.678)
  12. Madagascar (3.681)
  13. Tanzania (3.781)
  14. Cambodia (3.819)
  15. Niger (3.845)
  16. Gabon (3.896)
  17. Senegal (3.904)
  18. Uganda (3.931)
  19. Comoros (3.956)
  20. Congo (Brazzaville) (3.989)

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