In one form or another, we all chase happiness. Aristotle called it 'the supreme good' of society. The Bill of Rights (and Will Smith) forever enshrined its pursuit. Bhutan has made it a national goal. 

Happiness is complex, but remains universal. For some, happiness is all around. Yet for others, it is fleeting. 

Behind happiness lie several factors. Health. Money. The generosity and social support of people around us. Trust. Having the freedom to do... whatever (well, almost).  

The goal in society is to bring "the greatest happiness to the greatest number", said Bentham.  Rawls imagined a 'veil of ignorance', creating the world we'd want if we didn't know in advance who we'd be. 

These statements describe Denmark, the happiest country in 2016, well. For Burundi or Syria, the least happy countries, they are mere platitudes. 

The map below shows happiness around the world. Europe, the Americas, and the Commonwealth are all happy. Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are less happy. 

There are happy people in these countries, too. Compassion and joy exist even in destitute places. These happiness scores are based on people's own ratings of their happiness.  On average, however, the situation in these regions is worse.

The latest World Happiness Report provides us with an explanation.  The report breaks down each score into categories. Most of Qatar's happiness (score: 6.4,  rank: 36) comes from its high income per person. In Costa Rica (score: 7.1, rank: 14), a large slice comes from strong social support.  Healthy life expectancy contributes little to Angola's happiness (score: 3.9, rank: 141), the opposite of Japan (score: 5.9, rank: 53).

Money matters for happiness, but only alongside other social factors. 

Even within 'happy countries', people experience different levels of happiness. We often talk about inequality in incomes ('We are the 99%!'). This report shows there is a great deal of inequality in happiness, too. And that could be a bigger problem.

Inequality in well being captures a whole series of extra information about daily life beyond money. People might be well-off financially, but feel excluded from society. Trust, generosity, social support: these shape how we feel about our lives and the place we live. Governments are taking this on board with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Happiness is implicit in all the goals, and measures of wellbeing are in some of the indicators. 

One finding is clear: countries with more equal levels of happiness are themselves happier. If the goal is to improve the wellbeing of the people around you, this is the place to start.


Tim Dobermann is the Project Lead for Research at SDSN Youth. All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinion of the author and not of SDSN Youth.