What makes people or nations happier than others? The World Happiness Index released last month  lists Denmark as the world happiest country followed by Norway and Switzerland.

All these European countries are very affluent by world standards. But why are other wealthy countries like the United States  not right up there among the leading “happy nations.”

What stands out in Denmark, Norway and Switzerland is their excellent health care and education system which are regarded as a basic human right. This is sustainable development. The people, especially mothers, families and children, are seen as the most important asset, literally the golden gateway to the future.

The Happiness Report lists six other key variables that explains three-quarters of the variation in annual national average scores over time and among countries. These six factors include:

  • real GDP per capita
  • healthy life expectancy
  • someone to count on
  • perceived freedom to make life choices
  • freedom from corruption and generosity.

Another key aspect mentioned in the report is mental health:

“Some studies show mental health to be the single most important determinant of whether a person is happy or not. Yet, even in rich countries, less than a third of mentally ill people are in treatment. Good, cost-effective treatments exist for depression, anxiety disorders and psychosis, and the happiness of the world would be greatly increased if they were more widely available.”

The report goes on to say that “happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens. Well-being should be developed both for its own sake and for its side-effects.”

One other aspect needs to be noted in these “happy nations” . Corruption and crime is extremely low by international standards. All the countries renowned for their corruption and crime, sadly including my own home country South Africa, are pretty much down at the bottom of the list.

If a government cannot protect its own people from being mugged, raped or robbed, it is on a fast downward spiral. The best talents in a country are bound to emigrate to those countries where they feel safe, can live their full potential and be happy.


Some would argue that happiness is all a state of mind, wherever you live. That, I think, is too simplistic and approach. What I read from the Happiness Report is that you need some decisive preconditions that only good governance can provide:

  • You need enough material resources to provide for basic needs
  • The opportunity to live a long and healthy life with your loved ones.
  • A good education and the freedom of choice to do what you find to be your life’s purpose
  • Freedom from crime and corruption

Quoting the Dalai Lama: “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”