Where Are the Happiest People in the World? Insights from the 2024 World Happiness Report

 

The International Day of Happiness, celebrated worldwide on March 20th, highlights the importance of happiness and well-being in our lives. This relatively new observance, initiated just over a decade ago, owes its inception to Bhutan. The nation championed the United Nations Resolution 65/309, titled “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” which urged governments around the world to prioritize happiness and well-being in their development agendas. The United Nations General Assembly adopted this resolution on July 19th, 2011.

The World Happiness Report (WHR), published annually to mark the celebration of the International Day of Happiness, offers insights into the global state of happiness and regional trends and differences. It is a collaborative effort involving the WHR Editorial Board, the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and Gallup. The report evaluates global happiness using Gallup World Poll data, which gathers life evaluations from approximately 1,000 individuals in each country. Respondents rate their current lives on a scale of 0 (the worst possible life) to 10 (the best possible life). The process generates a ranking of countries based on happiness, thereby influencing the integration of subjective well-being into decision-making.

With more than 20 years of research on the happiest, healthiest people in the world, and a focus on innovative community transformations that foster well-being, Blue Zones is proud to have been a co-sponsor of this year’s WHR. The report covers 2021 to 2023 and reveals notable trends in well-being and happiness around the world. Finland maintains its position as the leader in happiness, while countries in Eastern Europe, including Czechia, Lithuania, and Slovenia, have climbed the rankings to positions 18, 19, and 21 respectively. This upward trajectory has displaced Western nations like the United States and Germany from the top twenty. Conversely, happiness levels have seen a decline in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, particularly among the youth, who have had a steeper decrease compared to older demographics. Notwithstanding, younger individuals reported experiencing positive emotions more frequently than the elderly, although negative emotions have risen significantly over the past decade. 

Following the pandemic, there has been a noticeable decline in life satisfaction, with females generally expressing lower satisfaction with their lives than their male counterparts across the world. However, there has also been a surge in benevolent actions, seemingly spurred by the response to the pandemic. This is particularly noticeable among Generation Z and Millennials, who are more likely to help people in need than older generations. Contrary to common assumptions about aging and well-being, older generations born before 1965 had more positive life evaluations than people born after 1980. The report also highlights a worrying trend of growing well-being inequalities across all age groups globally. 

Factors Influencing People’s Life Evaluations Around the Globe

The team at WHR conducted surveys and experiments to better understand the factors that affect people’s subjective well-being, as measured by their life evaluations. The team identified six variables that significantly impact life evaluations across different countries. These variables include Gross Domestic Product (GDP), healthy life expectancy, having a reliable support system, freedom to make life choices, practicing generosity, and living free from corruption. These insights resonate with the Blue Zones approach, which advocates for community-led transformations to enhance well-being, emphasizing the significance of the Life Radius® — the environment where individuals spend the bulk of their time, as well as the need for strong support systems and a sense of purpose.

Six variables significantly impact life evaluations... GDP, healthy life expectancy, having a reliable support system, freedom to make life choices, practicing generosity, and living free from corruption. Click To Tweet

The WHR also identified a consistent pattern: life satisfaction decreases from high-income countries through upper-middle, lower-middle, to lower-income countries. This underscores the importance of material well-being in our happiness. The report also points out that individuals’ satisfaction with their standard of living, the quality of their environment, opportunities for social interaction, access to quality healthcare, affordable housing, and public transportation are also linked to people’s life satisfaction. Of these factors, standard of living was the most important factor accounting for differences in life satisfaction. Satisfaction with one’s body image, one’s relationships with parents, school experiences, health status, time use, and neighborhood quality were also related to life satisfaction scores.

Education stands out as a crucial element in people’s well-being, especially in regions with limited economic resources. Using India as a case study, researchers noted that education not only serves as a pathway to better economic prospects but is also integral to broader social benefits. Satisfaction with educational experiences is linked to better healthcare outcomes, lower risks of mental and physical illnesses, and broader social networks, thereby contributing to a more nuanced understanding of well-being. 

Education stands out as a crucial element in people’s well-being, especially in regions with limited economic resources. Click To Tweet

Importantly, the findings underscore the multifaceted nature of happiness and highlight the potential efficacy of targeted interventions in improving life evaluations and subjective well-being. Efforts to transform community well-being with Blue Zones interventions include multisectoral coalitions of stakeholders across our pillars of People, Places, and Policy. Worksites, civic organizations, schools, restaurants, and grocery stores follow Blue Zones best practice menus to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and key community leaders and Blue Zones experts collaborate to optimize the built environment, food policy, tobacco policy, alcohol policy, integrating community support, rewarding social connections, and healthful living into daily life. As the report notes, inequalities in the distribution of happiness around the world tend to reflect inequalities in access to direct and indirect supports for well-being such as income, education, and healthcare, social acceptance, trust, and supportive social environments in the family, community, and nation.

A Generational Divide in Happiness?

The 2024 WHR reveals a striking generational divide in life evaluations, with older generations born before 1965 reporting higher life evaluations than those born after 1980. In the United States, this contrast is stark: Young people (aged 15-24) rank 62nd out of 143 countries in terms of happiness with Lithuania claiming the top spot for young people’s happiness. Conversely, older Americans (aged 60+) are significantly happier, ranking 10th globally, while Denmark leads in happiness for this age group globally. 

This disparity in happiness rankings within the United States reflects a broader trend observed from 2006 to 2010: happiness among North American youth has sharply declined. It also offers a nuanced view of the quality of our lives as we age. How is it that older individuals report a higher level of happiness despite an increase in physical limitations as they age? Researchers attribute this to a reduction in the pressures of balancing work and family life, as is evidenced by the elderly’s higher scores on the freedom to make life choices. Moreover, there appears to be a perceptible shift in perspective as people age, with older generations tending to adopt a more positive framing of their lives. The data reviewed for the WHR also found that older people reported a greater sense of community belonging, more social support, and less loneliness than the younger generations, despite younger generations engaging in a higher quantity of social interactions. These findings suggest that it may be the quality of social interactions rather than their frequency that are crucial in shaping our sense of well-being. 

...happiness among North American youth has sharply declined... Click To Tweet

To enhance the quality of social interactions among younger populations, it is important to create environments and organize events that encourage more meaningful support and connections. The Blue Zones model emphasizes the value of purposeful, meaningful interactions, which can be instrumental in addressing the happiness divide between the young and old. For instance, community activities in shared spaces such as parks and libraries can encourage the social participation of younger individuals alongside the elderly, fostering mutual learning and support, and enriching the lives of both groups. Partnerships with worksites, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, faith-based organizations, homeowners associations, and community groups can catalyze the creation of new community parks and gardens, safer walking routes, and foster stronger social connections, community pride, and a revitalized sense of purpose.

Finally, it was surprising to note that despite the upheaval caused by the pandemic, life evaluations did not change significantly. According to the WHR team, this may be due to the rise in benevolence, which is connected to a more positive life evaluation, as well as a sense of trust and purpose. This illustrates the value of a sense of purpose and networks of mutual support, such through ‘moais,’ small networks providing mutual support and community participation, even during times of difficulty. Such groups can also be an avenue to cater to the needs of girls as they transition into adulthood, helping to bridge the gender gap in happiness evaluations. 

The 2024 World Happiness Report not only provides a global snapshot of happiness but also underscores the pressing need for community-focused well-being interventions. Whether it is through the establishment of walking groups that increase physical activity and social interactions or the transformation of urban spaces into community parks and gardens to promote physical activity, mental well-being, and environmental stewardship, strategic changes in our Life Radius can contribute to a happier, healthier world. Embracing these insights can help not only close the happiness divide but also improve living standards and foster a global culture of well-being, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status.


Ebele Mogo, DrPH has a wealth of experience in global health including work with policymakers, venture-funded start-ups, international organizations, and grassroots organizations. She has worked in a wide range of contexts including Canada, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, the United States, England, Scotland, and Japan. She is well-versed in the thematic areas of urban health, behavior change, young people’s health, technology-enabled health promotion, non-communicable disease prevention, and planetary health.

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