Monday, 5 January 2009

World's Happinest Places

The Netherlands' Erasmus University is home to the World Database of Happiness. Its director, Ruut Veenhoven, has made his life's work researching what makes people happy. Inspired by these rankings, a former correspondent for National Public Radio and self-proclaimed grouch, Eric Weiner, decided to visit and chronicle the happiest, and saddest, places on earth, leading to his book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.

He doesn't visit them all, though, so we've taken results directly from Veenhoven's data for the 13 happiest countries out of 95 surveyed. Happiness level is based on polls of citizens, with a 10 indicating perfect bliss.

01 - Denmark
Happiness level: 8.2
Population: 5,475,791
Gross domestic product per capita: $37,000
Happy fact: Denmark boats a happy workforce. The unemployment rate in December 2007 was only 2.7%. Some 75% of the labor force are members of a trade union.

02 - Switzerland
Happiness level: 8.1
Population: 7,591,400
GDP per capita: $38,706
Happy fact: The Swiss are efficient and punctual, comparatively wealthy and face hardly any unemployment. Their streets, air and tap water are squeaky clean. Chocolate is a national obsession. But Weiner saw no joy in their faces, and reasoned that perhaps it's better to live in this middle range than to constantly swing between great highs and terrible lows. Swiss happiness, he writes, is "more than mere contentment but less than full-on joy."

03 - Austria
Happiness level: 8.0
Population: 8,316,487
GDP per capita: $36,000
Happy fact: Nearly 80% of Austria's total energy consumption comes from renewable sources like hydropower, as well as wind, solar and biomass power plants. Vienna is also home to one of the world's great operas - the Vienna State Opera, and there's always the Sachertorte, a delectable chocolate confection. Truly, the hills are alive with the sound of music.

04 - Iceland
Happiness level: 7.8
Population: 316,252
GDP per capita: $40,277
Happy fact: Because the country is dark and cold, Weiner was initially skeptical about Iceland's ranking as the fourth-happiest nation in the world (after Denmark, Switzerland and Austria). But the nation is a family - geneticists have actually found that all citizens are related. Certain phrases in the Icelandic language, Weiner writes, are even more telling. When people greet each other, the phrase they use roughly translates to "come happy," and when people part, they utter the equivalent of "go happy." The country is a favorite stamping ground of artists and cultivates a creative spirit. Indeed, the government supports writers with generous subsidies.

05 - Finland
Happiness level: 7.7
Population: 5,307,578
GDP per capita: $34,819
Happy fact: Finland is the freest nation in the world when it comes to civil liberties, freedom of the press, low corruption levels and high levels of political rights, according to its World Audit Democracy profile. And over 75% of citizens' health care costs are funded by public entities. Traffic ticket fines are based on your ability to pay. One 27-year-old Finnish Internet entrepreneur, pulled over in his BMW doing 43 miles an hour in a 25-mph zone, was slapped with a $71,400 fine. A 26-year-old grad student paid $82 for a similar offense. He was happier.

06 - Australia
Happiness level: 7.7
Population: 21,260,000
GDP per capita: $34,359
Happy fact: In 2006, a pair of economists ranked Australia second, after Iceland, in a new kind of happiness ranking. Using the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and GDP, the researchers found that Australians were happier than citizens of other nations even though they tended to work long hours and enjoyed less job security.

07 - Sweden
Happiness level: 7.7
Population: 9,182,927
GDP per capita: $34,735
Happy fact: Sweden is known for its myriad state-sponsored, comprehensive services, including tax-funded child care, paid parental leave, ceilings on health care costs, tax-funded education up to and including college, retirement pensions and tax-funded dental care for citizens until they turn 20.

08 - Canada
Happiness level: 7.6
Population: 33,244,000
GDP per capita: $38,200
Happy fact: In 2006, a group of social psychologists at England's University of Leicester created a map of the world's happiest nations based on compiled data from more than 100 studies that surveyed 80,000 people. According to their ranking, Canada's score was largely due to its citizens' health, wealth and access to education.

09 - Guatemala
Happiness level: 7.6
Population: 13,000,000
GDP per capita: $4,155
Happy fact: The old mantra must be true: Money can't buy happiness. While Guatemala's GDP per capita may be paltry compared with, say, Denmark's ($37,000), the Central American nation is topping the happiness charts right along with its economically better-off counterparts.

10 - Luxembourg
Happiness level: 7.6
Population: 480,222
GDP per capita: $81,511
Happy fact: Luxembourg's economy is stable and high-performing, boasting low inflation and low unemployment. In 2006, the nation possessed the highest GDP per capita in the world. Though the country is small, its citizens are fiercely proud of their heritage and retain folk traditions that are vestiges of its rural past.

11 - Ireland
Happiness level: 7.6
Population: 4,339,000
GDP per capita: $43,600
Happy fact: Whoever said sunnier places were happier has never been to Ireland. Even though some parts of Ireland see 275 days of rain per year, temperatures rarely drop below freezing, even in the winter. And in 2005, Ireland topped a quality-of-life index compiled by The Economist based on nine criteria that ranged from health to gender equality to political freedom.

12 - Mexico
Happiness level: 7.6
Population: 108,700,891
GDP per capita: $11,249
Happy fact: The most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, Mexico is a land of natural beauty and scientific import. It contains 200,000 species, or 10% to 12% of the world's biodiversity.

13 - Norway
Happiness level: 7.6
Population: 4,752,735
GDP per capita: $55,600
Happy fact: Norway is rife with natural resources, including petroleum, hydropower, fish, forests and minerals. One reason the standard of living is so high is that those resources are vast compared with the size of the population. From 2001 to 2006, the Scandinavian nation also topped the U.N. Human Development Index, which is based on literacy rate, education level and per-capita income.

Happiness places on earth

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