The UN Commissioned a Report on Global Happiness. Here’s What It Said

How do we know we’re measuring the right things in life?

I mean, we pay plenty of lip service to happiness but how often does being happier take a backseat to money, status, and the accumulation of junk?

UN World Happiness Report 2013

The question of how to measure the well-being of a country’s citizens isn’t a new one, but researchers at the United Nations have looked into the problem with new statistical techniques.

And what they found might surprise you.

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

Gross National Happiness

When Jigme Singye Wangchuk (let’s call him J.S.) succeeded his father as king of Bhutan in 1972, he faced the problem of ushering in the modern age to a strict, traditional Buddhist country consisting of mainly subsistence farmers.

J.S. knew his country needed to embrace modernity, but how could he preserve Bhutanese culture in the process? J.S. also knew that the high Gross Domestic Product of his Western allies didn’t necessarily translate to happiness for its citizens.

King J.S. and his advisors developed a new metric: Gross National Happiness.

UN World Happiness Report: Gross National Happiness and King Jigme Singye Wangchuk

He believed that sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance were a better measure of a country’s success than simply counting up all the money its citizens produce each year.

Ever since he coined the term Gross National Happiness, people have been trying to develop a metric to capture those intangibles King J.S. identified as being important to his countrymen’s happiness.

Is there a common set of factors that leads certain countries to be happier than others? And what are those factors, if they do exist?

The UN World Happiness Report

In April of 2012, the Earth Institute published the first-ever World Happiness Report for the United Nations Conference on Happiness. The UN World Happiness Report represents one of the first major attempts to develop a standard system for determining happiness in the different nations on earth.

The researchers of the World Happiness Report started with two very simple questions, and had the participants rate their response on a scale of 0 to 10:

  • How happy would you say you are?
  • How satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

You might expect that happiness closely tracks a country’s wealth. After all, if people are richer, aren’t they also happier too? While happier countries tend to be richer countries overall, wealth doesn’t explain the whole story:

Political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries.

What the researchers at the Earth Institute found was that while living standards were higher in some countries like the United States, happiness didn’t increase along with it at the same rate.

For instance, they found that job security was more important to happiness than total pay, which comports with the idea that the optimal salary for happiness is no higher than $75,000 a year. Job security in the U.S., as we all know, is practically nonexistent, even though wages are relatively high.

The World Happiness Report 2013

In 2013, the first update to the World Happiness Report came out, this time led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

Many of the key findings from the first World Happiness Report were reinforced and expanded upon by the second report.


Denmark and a slew of Scandinavian countries topped the list once again. But the news wasn’t all good for the developed West.

National Geographic points to the plateauing and, in some cases, even declining happiness figures in the Western developed world with some alarm:

On the other hand, warns Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and one of the authors of the report, riches can cause stresses and problems of their own. In his introduction to the report, Sachs cites the “persistent creation of new material ‘wants’ through the incessant advertising of products using powerful imagery and other means of persuasion.”

Sachs warns that an advertising industry worth around $500 billion per year is “preying on psychological weaknesses and unconscious urges,” and therefore making us less happy. Unhealthy products like cigarettes, sugar, and trans-fats are being pushed to our detriment, he wrote.

Such stresses and disillusionment may account for why the overall happiness figures for the (otherwise happy) industrialized West have been declining, while countries in developing regions, especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, have been becoming happier overall, Sachs noted. Of the three biggest gainers in overall happiness, two (Angola at 61st and Zimbabwe at 103rd) were in Africa. Albania (at 62nd) is the third.

Why does it matter whether a country’s citizens are happy or not?

According to the report, happy people live longer, are more productive, and act as more responsible citizens.

And besides, who wants to live in a country where everyone is miserable?

5 Factors That Contribute to Happiness

In The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, cognitive scientist Tali Sharot writes about a study conducted by British research company Ipsos MORI.

Ipsos MORI surveyed 2,015 people to discover which factors contributed most to happiness. Participants listed five factors as the most important (in order of importance):

  1. More time with family
  2. Earning double what I do now
  3. Better health
  4. More time with friends
  5. More traveling

What’s more interesting than the exact composition of factors—although that’s interesting too—is how much the order of importance varied with the respondents’ age:

While 55 percent of young adults, ages fifteen to twenty-four years, believed being richer would make them happier, only 5 percent of respondents seventy-five years and older thought more money would contribute to their happiness. Maybe life experience had taught them that happiness cannot be bought. On the other hand, the perceived contribution of health to satisfaction with life increased steadily as a person aged. Only 10 percent of respondents from fifteen to twenty-four years old rated better health as one of the top five factors that would make them happy, as opposed to 45 percent of people over the age of seventy-five.

Similarly, spending more time with family was a uniquely middle-aged concern: The peak of anxiety was between age thirty-five and forty-four.

Accounting for our future well-being is a difficult problem. Our tastes change, our values change, our priorities change … and this happens constantly throughout our lives.

The UN World Happiness Report reflects this reality, but in the aggregate. What’s important to remember is that different factors take on varying degrees of importance as you live your life.

This is exactly where a bit of agile thinking does a lot of good. Designing your life in such a way to anticipate the (inevitable) changes in what makes you happy leads to longer lasting satisfaction.

The promotion and the paycheck that you care so much about today might not matter in ten or fifteen years when you’re worrying about your health or your family instead.

Personal agility is your ability to respond to change—to survive and thrive in turbulent, ever-changing situations.

Even when the source of that turbulence is you and your changing personality.

Thriving Blue Zones & the World Happiness Report

The findings of the World Happiness Report fit what we’ve learned about the world’s “Blue Zones,” regions of the planet where people are happiest and live the longest.

In Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, author Dan Buettner traveled to Denmark (coincidentally the #1 happiest country in the world according to the UN report), Okinawa, Mexico, and California to find the Blue Zones of happiness.

These Blue Zones combined the best elements of freedom, economic stability, tolerance, and good governance to produce optimal levels of happiness for the people living in these Blue Zones.

Buettner deconstructed what made people living in these areas so happy. What he came up with is the 6 Thrive Centers:

  • Community. Quiet, walkable community spaces with plenty of light and nature are recurring features of Blue Zones. So is a commitment to public safety.
  • Work. Meaningful work that follows the Hedgehog concept creates engaged, happy citizens. And don’t skip your vacations!
  • Social. Human beings are social animals. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, they create moai groups of friends who commit to one another for life. Cultivate strong, mutually supportive relationships.
  • Finance. The key to happiness in your financial life is being happy with what you have. Have the right amount of money to thrive, and stop striving for more.
  • Home. Most of us spend a third of our lives in our homes, and another third in our bedrooms. Are you putting enough thought into optimizing these spaces for work, life, and sleep?
  • Self. People who live life with purpose are happier. An aimless life is an unhappy one.

It’s no surprise that the 6 Thrive Centers and the key happiness factors from the UN’s report overlap considerably.

3 Takeaways From the UN World Happiness Report

#1: Finding job security in yourself

The World Happiness Report teaches us that job security is more important to happiness than how much money you make. But if job security can no longer be found in a 9 to 5 job, then where do we look to for security?

The answer is that living agile requires looking inward for security. These days, you are the Chairman and CEO of You, Inc. whether you like it or not. The best way to find security in your career is to make sure that You, Inc. is always in demand.

Author and entrepreneur James Altucher states the situation well in his response to a question about pitching a startup:

So we became, and we always will be, a world of temp-staffers, executives, and entrepreneurs. Everybody fits into one of those categories. Even if you think you are a permanent staffer, that’s just a lie your employer is telling you. There’s no more loyalty. You are a temp. And eventually your payroll will be outsourced. And eventually you will be outsourced. So you’re either ok with that, or you become an executive, or you figure out how to be an entrepreneur or work in a more entrepreneurial company.

The economy is changing in a permanent way, spurred on by the internet revolution and the death of bigger is better. We have more options than ever, but at the same time we will have to be more responsible for our careers than our parents. Closing the feedback loop and finding your personal Hedgehog become more important than ever in the agile century.

#2: Strengthening social networks

As you grow older, you grow further apart from our family and friends. Over time, it may seem that you spend all of your time with coworkers and acquaintances, instead of your true friends.

Some of this is inevitable in a location independent society, where people move around frequently to pursue new opportunities. Technology like social media is keeping us more in touch with friends than ever before. For instance, I use my fantasy football league to keep in touch with friends from Bangkok to Oakland.

But none of this is a substitute for face-to-face human interaction. Go out of your way to build a social network outside of work. Favor deep connections over the shallow, fleeting contacts you make at networking events.

As the moai example demonstrates, it’s not the quantity of friends that matters, it’s the depth of feeling and mutual support that contributes to overall happiness.

#3: Picking the right neighborhood

Seem trivial? It’s not.

The UN World Happiness Report, Buettner’s Blue Zones work, and Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness identify safe, quiet, natural environments as being immensely important to happiness.

Even if you live in a bustling city like New York City, finding private places for peace and public places to appreciate nature are incredibly important.

City planners are wising up to this truth. That’s why many cities are fighting to recapture green spaces for the public.

Remember that human beings didn’t evolve to live in concrete boxes in the sky. Your psychological well-being is powerfully tied to your surrounding environment. Something like Seasonal Affective Disorder wouldn’t exist if it weren’t.

Final Thoughts

The world is changing rapidly. Living agile is about responding to change.

There are two ways to respond to change: frantically with anxiety or calmly with confidence.

Agile is a set of tools to deal with change. My job and the goal of Agile Lifestyle is to equip you with the tools to respond to change, decrease your anxiety, and turn you towards the project of designing your life.

As we learn more about what actually makes people happy, we’re finding that it’s not about making more money or investing in junk that you can live without.

In an environment where jobs are being displaced and industries are being disrupted, we’ve learned that happiness comes from within. Happiness is a mindset that can be learned.

A version of this article first appeared on November 9, 2012.

Top Photo Credit: AdamCohn via Compfight cc

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