The world is becoming a happier place

The world is becoming a significantly happier place, a major study published in Perspectives of Psychological Science suggests.

Worldwide high: Existing theory suggests that, as a general rule, society doesn't get much happier over time. But a new study of 350,000 people over 26 years turns that idea on its head. – Getty Images

WASHINGTON DC: The world is becoming a significantly happier place, a major study published in this month’s Perspectives of Psychological Science suggests.

Data from national surveys conducted between 1981 and 2006, which were collated by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in the U.S., showed that happiness was on the rise in 40 out of 52 countries.

Surprise finding

And in a separate happiness ranking, which looked at 97 countries representing 90 per cent of the world’s population, only 20 countries were listed as ‘unhappy’.

Ronald Inglehart, a political scientists and lead author of the study, said the upswell in happiness came as a surprise to researchers, who have long felt it was “almost impossible to raise an entire country’s happiness level.”

“There has been a lot of research over the last 25 years indicating that happiness is very stable,” said Inglehart.”[This suggested that] there may be short-term changes but it returns to a set point.”

But the new study – which was part of the ongoing World Values Surveys – appeared to disprove that theory. For the past 26 years, World Values Surveys have asked more than 350,000 people how happy they are.

Wealth, democratisation and tolerance

Among the 52 countries and territories for which long-term comparative data were available, India, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South Korea showed steep upticks in happiness last year, while the happiness quotient in 14 other countries, including nine in Europe, also rose, though less sharply.

Those 14 countries are: Argentina, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Spain and Sweden.

“Economic growth, democratisation and tolerance are strongly linked with happiness,” said Inglehart. “We have had an unusual set of circumstances in the last 25 years where all of these things that are quite important and have strong linkages to happiness have been going in a favourable direction.”

“Democracies are significantly happier than non-democratic countries; prosperous countries tend to be happier than poor countries; and tolerant people – even intolerant people living in a tolerant society – tend to be happier.”

In the U.S., Switzerland and Norway, happiness was stagnant, but all three countries were still in the top 20 of the 97 nations that were ranked in order of happiness levels.

Deeply unhappy

Denmark, where 52 per cent of the population said they were very happy, was at the top of that list and Zimbabwe at the bottom, with only around four per cent of Zimbabweans saying they were happy.

“Zimbabwe has everything going wrong. It’s desperately poor, AIDS is high, people are being killed, [and] the political system is repressive. It’s not a great place to live these days and it’s deeply unhappy,” said Inglehart.

“The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives,” Inglehart said, citing the tolerant societies and democratic political systems in Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada – all of which rank among the 10 happiest countries in the world.

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