This story is part of Techonomy’s original series about technology’s potential to help us achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It’s from the most recent issue of Techonomy’s magazine.
The third of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 is “Good Health and Well-Being”—including happiness. So what’s the state of happiness around the world? And what will it take to boost it? The United Nations Sustainable Development Network, which is devoted to tracking the progress towards the SDGs, puts so much priority on these questions that it produces an annual World Happiness Report.
Talk about happiness may feel lofty. But prioritizing happiness is a growing global concern. Bhutan has been measuring citizens’ happiness since the 1970s. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, recently appointed a national happiness minister, with an audacious goal: make the UAE one of the world’s five happiest countries by 2021. Many of the world’s largest companies are investing in employee wellness programs, believing that doing so will improve productivity, retention, and happiness.
Nevertheless, happiness around the world remains flat, the study finds. In a few mostly poor, violence-torn countries, happiness is declining so much that it offsets the fact that far more nations are experiencing rising happiness.
In America, we’re obsessed with happiness. One of Yale’s most popular courses in recent years has been “Psychology and the Good Life.” (It’s available online–for free–here.) Nonetheless, we’re getting sadder. We suffer from deepening distrust in government, widening inequality, divisive political rhetoric, and digital addictions (The U.S. comes in at 19 in the happiness study.) Happiness is declining in India, too, possibly in part because of digital technology. Wireless technology presents astonishing new capability for human connection, but growth in smartphones also appears to be contributing to social isolation in many countries.
Most of the happiest places are in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. What makes those countries so happy? The region’s leaders have prioritized transparent, efficient governance, which helps inspire citizen trust. Social safety nets are robust. Finland—the world’s happiest country—even experimented with giving 2,000 unemployed people about $635 a month for two years. Recipients were generally happier—less stressed about their job status, healthier, and more likely to work to make their communities better.
Governments play a powerful role in determining national happiness. One striking example is Mexico, which landed at 23 on the list. Happiness measures have generally risen there for the last few years. It’s an increasingly developed country whose middle class is growing, thanks to improved access to higher education and more relatively well-paying jobs. But the government’s inability to tackle inequality, corruption and violence is partly what led citizens, in 2018, to oust the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled for much of the last century. We’ll see if the new, leftist and populist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, can keep happiness rising.
One of the report’s authors, John F. Helliwell, researcher at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, says it’s ultimately up to people to make the world happier. “Making a point of talking to people in elevators, and on the streets of our neighborhoods,” he says, “will help create a climate of trust.”
Here are the world’s happiest countries:
- New Zealand
Here are the world’s unhappiest countries:
- South Sudan
- Central African Republic