White’s research used a battery of statistical data, plus the subjective responses of 80,000 people worldwide, to map out well-being across 178 countries. Denmark and five other European countries, including Switzerland, Austria, and Iceland, came out in the top 10, while Zimbabwe and Burundi pulled up the bottom.
Not surprisingly, the countries that are happiest are those that are healthy, wealthy, and wise. “The most significant factors were health, the level of poverty, and access to basic education,” White says. Population size also plays a role. Smaller countries with greater social cohesion and a stronger sense of national identity tended to score better, while those with the largest populations fared worse. China came in No. 82, India ranked 125, and Russia was 167. The U.S. came in at 23.
Good health may be the key to happiness, but money helps open the door. Wealthier countries, such as Switzerland (2) and Luxembourg (10) scored high on the index. Not surprisingly, most African countries, which have little of either; scored poorly. Zimbabwe, which has an AIDS rate of 25%, an average life expectancy of 39, and an 80% poverty rate, ranked near the bottom at 177. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis gave fellow Africans in Burundi, ranked 178, even less to smile about, despite their having a slightly lower poverty rate of 68%.
Capitalism, meanwhile, fared quite well. Free-market systems are sometimes blamed for producing unhappiness due to insecurity and competition, but the U.S. was No. 23 and all the top-ranking European countries are firmly capitalist—albeit of a social-democratic flavor.