Why happiness?


What is our goal as a society? If it is to increase the amount of money we have, then the traditional indi- cator of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) might be an accurate way to measure our progress. But if our goal is to improve our well-being, then we need a different way: getting richer is not always the same as becoming happier. 

By focusing on happiness, our national and local governments can judge their success in creating fairer and more harmonious societies. Researching human well-being can be used as a guide for governments when planning for the future.

Happiness measures are also an important part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals capture the key elements needed for our world to become more sustainable. The SDGs will be adopted by UN member states in 2015. 

Why are some countries happier than others?

Almost three-quarters of the difference in happiness between countries and regions is accounted for by six key features. These are: income (GDP per capi- ta), the expected number of healthy years lived, social support, trust, freedom to make life decisions, and the generosity of people.

Countries that have high ‘social capital’ — a high level of trust between people and strong social support — are able to maintain well-being in the face of natural disasters or changes in the economy.

This shows there are many decisions a government can make to make its citizens happier. The quality of someone’s life means much more than how much money an individual earns. Governments which try to build communities based on trust and support find their people to be happier. 



Where in the world is there happiness?

The happiest countries are in dark green, with the least happy in red. North and South America, Western Europe and Oceania are the happiest. South Asia and Africa south of the Sahara Desert are the least happy.

There is a close link between how rich a country is and how happy its people are. However, there are countries in South America which are very happy but which do not have incomes much higher than countries elsewhere in the world. Money may be an important part in determining how happy people are, but it does not capture all aspects. 

What makes happy young minds?

A universal desire is to see our children grow and develop into happy and successful adults. To achieve this, we often focus on academic performance.

It turns out that academic success is not all that matters for a child. The emotional development of children is often overlooked, and is important for the well-being of our youth.

For example, mental health is a massive problem among our world’s youth. Almost one out of ten youth — representing 200 million young people

around the world — suffer from mental health problems. Many of these go undiagnosed, meaning they do not receive the treatment and care they need. If we do not acknowledge this problem, these children risk becoming unhappy adults. By prioritizing youth well-being, we are investing in the future happiness of our world.  



How do people around the world feel?

Happiness, laughter, anger, sadness; all of these feelings express how we might feel from one day to the next. Combined, they all reflect our well-being. The graphs above show how often men and women, on average across all regions globally, report experiencing a certain feeling. Moving from left to right in each graph shows how the responses change as the age of a person increases.

Young people are the happiest and laugh the most. They also tend to be less rested and more stressed as they begin their careers and start families.

What can we do to make the world happier?

People value being part of a caring and well- functioning community. This year is a crucial year for governments around the world to include the many elements of happiness into their policies. As governments meet to adopt the SDGs, youth and members of the public can be active in pushing for goals which highlight all of the aspects affecting our well-being. 



Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. 2015. World Happiness Report 2015. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Net- work.

For more, see: http://worldhappiness.report/


SDSN Youth would like to thank Fiona Bowie and Tim Dobermann (@timdobermann) for their valuable contributions.