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Global August 20, 2008, 1:02PM EST

Survey Says: People Are Happier

The 2008 World Values Survey found that freedom of choice and tolerance—and not simply wealth—have lots to do with a rise in happiness

By Matt Mabe

Happiness hunters have done it again. They’ve used an army of pollsters and a mountain of data to uncover the world’s happiest countries. But this year, there are some unexpected winners—for unexpected reasons.

The World Values Survey, which has compiled data from 350,000 people in 97 countries since 1981, found Denmark to be home to the planet’s most contented citizens (again) with Zimbabwe as the most miserable (again). Classic Scandinavian front-runners like Sweden and Finland were nudged out of the top 10 by Puerto Rico and Colombia. El Salvador placed a surprising 11th, beating out Malta and Luxembourg. Further down the list came the U.S., ranked in 16th place.

Directed by University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart and administered from Stockholm, the survey found that freedom of choice, gender equality, and increased tolerance are responsible for a considerable rise in overall world happiness. The results shatter the more simplistic and traditionally accepted notion that wealth is the determining factor, says Inglehart.

Methods of Measurement

In 2006, a quite different study was conducted at Britain’s University of Leicester that produced a top 10 list with many of the same countries (BusinessWeek.com, 10/11/06). The British survey compiled data from UNESCO, the CIA, the New Economics Foundation, and the World Health Organization, among others, and concluded that wealth, access to health care, and basic education were the most critical factors in determining happiness. It’s no surprise that the list was top-heavy on European countries (BusinessWeek.com, 10/11/06) (For a full list that compares the 2006 study with rankings of national economic competitiveness and technology savvy, see The World’s Most Competitive Countries.)

The World Values Survey, on the other hand, which has been gathering data for 27 years running, aims to measure “subjective well-being” through qualitative measure of peoples’ happiness and life satisfaction. It employs just two basic questions, which have never changed: “How would you rate your happiness?” and “How satisfied are you with your life these days?”

Dramatic Mood Shift

This year, the analysts were shocked by their findings. Reported happiness had actually risen in 40 countries and decreased in just 12. Inglehart, who has been involved in this research for 20 years, says the results defied conventional wisdom on the subject of happiness, which has held that levels remain more or less static. “We knew it couldn’t happen,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Do I dare report this?'”

Inglehart’s team figured it needed a better explanation for the data. “Most of the earlier studies, including my own, were based on economic factors, which are something you can simply pull off a bookshelf and look up,” he says. “If that’s all you look at, then that’s all you find.”

What the survey found this year is that freedom of choice and social acceptance are the most powerful forces behind national moods. “Money’s pretty powerful, but it’s not the whole story,” says Inglehart, though he maintains that a strong correlation still exists between high standards of living and happiness measures.

It’s Not Just About Money

Generally, a rising global sense of freedom in the last quarter-century has eclipsed the contribution of pure economic development to happiness, he says. This is especially evident in developed countries with stable economies, where the freedom of choice gained through wealth has made people happier—not necessarily the wealth itself.

What’s more, “there are diminishing returns to economic progress,” Inglehart says. In poorer countries, happiness can be linked to solidarity among tight-knit communities, religious conviction, and patriotism, which probably explains the happiness of some relatively poor Latin American countries, he says.

Social tolerance is another important factor in how happy a country rates itself. Over the last quarter-century, growing gender equality and acceptance of minorities and homosexuals has played a major role in those European countries found to be the most content. No. 7-ranked Switzerland, for instance, has elected two women as head of state in the last 10 years, while No. 4-ranked Iceland has recently passed laws guaranteeing virtually all the same rights to gay couples that married couples enjoy. “The less threatened people feel, the more tolerant they are,” says Inglehart. Tolerance simply has a rippling effect that makes people happier.

Gratitude Improves Attitude

While Inglehart does not profess to know the true secrets of happiness, he says that this most recent study has made the picture a bit clearer. In his opinion, benevolence and expressions of gratitude appear to be subtle but powerful ways to bring happiness into one’s life and to extend it. Religion and solidarity in the community play a big role in this, he says, but any positive belief system can help. “Latin America seems to understand this,” he says.

“In the old days I would have told you to work hard and save your money,” says Inglehart. “It’s different today. I just haven’t nailed it down yet.”

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