It's not just Norway – some developing countries are seeing gains in happiness index, too

Several developing countries made significant strides in the 2017 World Happiness Report, showing a trend away from volatile political climates and poverty toward more stability in society.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
A man holds a Nicaraguan flag at the Augusto C. Sandino international Airport in Managua, Nicaragua Monday as he awaits the return of boxer Roman 'El Chocolatito' Gonzalez.

Several developing countries are rising in the ranks of overall well-being after decades of struggling to keep up with Western nations, an annual report shows. 

The World Happiness Report, an index that rates nations based on factors such as income and life expectancy, released its 2017 list Monday at the United Nations. The list doesn’t contain any surprises among the happiest or least happy nations, where Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Finland rounded out the top and the Central African Republic, Syria, Tanzania, and Burundi came in among the bottom of the list.

But there is movement among some developing nations, including Nicaragua, Latvia, Sierra Leone, and Ecuador, which all saw the highest jumps in their happiness ratings when indexes from 2005-2007 were compared to 2014-2016 numbers. Meanwhile, nations on the regressing side included many Western countries, such as the United States, Italy, and Greece, as well as impoverished nations like the Central African Republic, Rwanda, and Ukraine.

Nicaragua came in 43rd, Ecuador in 44th, Latvia in 54th, and Sierra Leone in 106th, overall, putting each (aside from Sierra Leone) in the top half of nations. Sierra Leone made the third-largest gain on the happiness scale, after Latvia (No. 2) and Nicaragua (No. 1).

Analysts say that healthy life expectancy and gross domestic product per capita are two of the strongest determining factors in gauging a country’s happiness. But among nations that have generally ranked lower, such as developing countries in Latin America, Africa, or Eastern Europe, seemingly slight changes in those factors, or in issues of violent conflict and volatile political systems, can facilitate larger shifts, causing countries to see significant progress.  

“When people are at the very bottom, reducing conflict and reducing poverty are two things that will produce progress,” Carol Graham, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “At the individual level and at the aggregate level, income matters. It’s not the only variable by any means, but it gives people choices in life.”

In addition to income, the index takes into account healthy life expectancy, having social support in times of trouble, generosity, freedom, and trust, measured by corruption in government and business. In each of the 155 nations included in the index, researchers also poll 1,000 people, beginning with this question:

“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top,” the poll says. “The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

The happiest countries are ones in which people have democratic voting rights, safety networks and support systems, and feel free to make their own decisions and pursue certain goals.

For countries on the rise, a number of factors can be at play. In Nicaragua and Ecuador, periods of political unrest have begun to subside, bringing greater trust in government, drops in conflict, and subsequently new opportunities to some. In Russia, which also jumped, a growing national pride in President Vladimir Putin and economic revival could play a role, Dr. Graham says.

But for those on the decline, such as now ranked 19th US, identity politics and shifting demographics, as well as mistrust in the political system can cause a drop.

“The [US] is mired in a roiling social crisis that is getting worse,” Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York, wrote in the report. “Yet the dominant political discourse is all about raising the rate of economic growth.”

The solution, he argues, could lie in reducing income inequality, reforming the political system to rid out corruption in finances, and fostering improved relationships between immigrants and native-born Americans.

Economists tend to see some divide on the entwined role of money and happiness, drawing various conclusions on its impact on both individual and national happiness.

“Contrary to setpoint theory, life events such as marriage, divorce, and serious disability or disease do have lasting effects on happiness,” writes Richard Easterlin, an economics professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, in a report titled "The Economics of Happiness." Professor Easterlin, who is best known for an economic theory bearing his name, argues a higher GDP does not correlate with greater self-reported levels of happiness among citizens of a country. “Contrary to what economic theory assumes, more money does not make people happier.”

But that also has a range. Sufficient income allows people to make choices and to think about their lives long term, rather than focusing on day-to-day stressors and concerns.

“Being destitute and happiness do not go together,” Graham says. “What’s interesting is not that income is completely irrelevant, it’s relevant. But it’s trying to get a handle on these other things which matter just as much, if not more” that tells the whole story.  

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