World Happiness Report: What makes some countries happier than others?

Denmark has been named the world's happiest country, according to a United Nations report.

Torben Stroyer/ Polfoto via AP
This 2009 file photo shows people enjoying sunny weather in Nyhan, Denmark.

This year's award for the happiest country in the world goes to ... Denmark!

The Scandinavian country overtook Switzerland as the world's happiest place, according to the World Happiness Report Update 2016, released Wednesday in Rome by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations.

Denmark was joined by a group of largely western, European countries listed as the top 10 including Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden.

The bottom 10 were Madagascar, Tanzania, Liberia, Guinea, Rwanda, Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria, and Burundi.

The United States checked in at No. 13, out of 157 countries.

What makes a country happy? The report found that people in the happiest countries have a higher per capita gross domestic product (GDP); live longer, healthier lives; have more social support; have freedom to make life choices; and experience less corruption, more generosity, and more equality of happiness.

"Measuring self-reported happiness and achieving well-being should be on every nation's agenda as they begin to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals," said Jeffrey Sachs, the report's co-editor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in a statement.

"Indeed the goals themselves embody the very idea that human well-being should be nurtured through a holistic approach that combines economic, social and environmental objectives," Professor Sachs said. "Rather than taking a narrow approach focused solely on economic growth, we should promote societies that are prosperous, just, and environmentally sustainable."

Sachs singled out the US as a country that has focused more on economic growth at the expense of happiness.

"There is a very strong message for my country, the United States, which is very rich, has gotten a lot richer over the last 50 years, but has gotten no happier," he told Reuters.

"The message for the United States is clear. For a society that just chases money, we are chasing the wrong things. Our social fabric is deteriorating, social trust is deteriorating, faith in government is deteriorating," he explained.

In contrast to the US, Costa Rica, a relatively poor Latin American country, came in 14th, ahead of many wealthier countries, perhaps due to its focus on human and environmental health.

The report urged all countries to tackle issues critical to well-being like inequality and the environment.

"When countries single-mindedly pursue individual objectives, such as economic development to the neglect of social and environmental objectives, the results can be highly adverse for human wellbeing, even dangerous for survival," the report said.

"Many countries in recent years have achieved economic growth at the cost of sharply rising inequality, entrenched social exclusion, and grave damage to the natural environment."

External factors like economic and political turmoil caused a significant drop in happiness levels in some countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ukraine. Other countries that suffered economic crises or natural disasters, like Ireland, Iceland, and Japan, were able to maintain their happiness levels, perhaps because of high levels of social support.

How can countries boost their happiness levels? Follow the lead of Bhutan, Ecuador, Scotland, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. Those five countries have appointed Ministers of Happiness charged with promoting it as a goal of public policy.

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