Despite Frustrations, Americans Are Pretty Darned Happy

World survey ranks nations, reports happiness is improving worldwide.

The latest World Values Surveys show happiness increased worldwide from 1981 to 2007 in 45 of 52 countries. Denmark topped the list in happiness followed by Puerto Rico and Columbia. The United States ranked 16.

The United States ranks world happiness. Feel the joy.

As a group, we are happier than the residents of more than 80 countries, but less happy than those in 15 others, according to a new global assessment known as the World Values Survey (WVS). The most important determinant of happiness, the survey says, is the extent to which people have free choice in how to live their lives.

Denmark tops the list of surveyed nations, along with Puerto Rico and Colombia. A dozen other countries, including Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada and Sweden also rank above the United States, which has been on a happiness plateau since the 2000 WVS.

"Though by no means the happiest country in the world, from a global perspective the U.S. looks pretty good," says Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who directs the study. "The country is not only prosperous; it ranks relatively high in gender equality, tolerance of ethnic and social diversity and has high levels of political freedom."

The data are gathered by a global network of social scientists like Inglehart, who perform periodic surveys addressing a number of issues. The World Values Survey has measured happiness since 198, interviewing more than 350,000 people world wide.

The latest surveys taken in the United States and in several developing countries showed increased happiness from 1981 to 2007 in 45 of 52 countries for which substantial data was available.

Researchers measured happiness by simply asking people how happy they were, and how satisfied they were with their lives as a whole. Ninety-seven percent of respondents—an exceptionally high response rate—gave answers that strongly correlated with how satisfied they were with various aspects of life, such as gender equality and tolerance of minorities.

Interestingly, countries whose respondents reported high levels of happiness were much likelier to be democracies than were countries that rank lower in citizens' happiness.

Though happiness levels are rising in the world as a whole, the report comes at an interesting time for Americans, when recent public-opinion polls report striking dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. affairs.

"Americans' dissatisfaction with the country's current direction pulls down their sense of subjective well-being," says Inglehart. "But this is partly offset by other factors. The fact that Americans live in a free and tolerant society has more impact on happiness than economic prosperity or even additional income.

Even so, researchers note that wealth is important for happiness. Not surprisingly, three of the world's poorer countries with long histories of repressive government—Moldova, Armenia and Zimbabwe—are at the bottom of the happiness list. Virtually all of the lowest-ranking nations struggle with legacies of authoritarian rule and widespread poverty.

"The relative importance of economic prosperity to happiness changes as societies get richer," says Inglehart. "In low-income countries, one's economic situation has a huge impact on happiness. But among more prosperous countries, political freedom and social tolerance play a greater role in determining how happy people are."

They also play a role in improving a nation's long-term happiness. According to Ingelhart, improving economic conditions and raising political and social freedom can improve satisfaction within whole societies for the long term.

Earlier research suggests that happiness levels are stable and cannot be lastingly improved; some studies even indicate that happiness is genetically determined to a considerable extent. But the WVS data, which covers 97 nations containing almost 90 percent of the world's population, shows that happiness levels of both individuals and entire societies can change.

Although it ranks relatively high in many factors that contribute to happiness, the United States, for example, has room for improvement in such areas as social solidarity and universal health coverage, says Inglehart. "To some extent, well-designed social policy can help raise U.S. happiness levels even more," he says. "Policies that help increase the society's sense of solidarity and tolerance may also help."