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A fascinating map of the world’s happiest and least happy countries

The results of Columbia University's World Happiness Report, mapped. Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher/The Washington Post)
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Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands are the happiest countries in the world, according to the U.N.-sponsored “World Happiness Report” released Monday by Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The report infers happiness using a number of social and economic metrics, measured using data from 2010 to 2012.

The very least happy countries, all in sub-Saharan Africa, are Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Burundi and Rwanda. Syria also falls within the bottom 10. The United States ranks 17th of the 156 ranked countries, behind Mexico (16) and Panama (15).

The happiness metrics are highest in the Western, developed world: North America, Western Europe and Australia. But, as you can see in the above map, it's also quite high in much of Latin America and on the Arabian Peninsula. It tends to be lower in poorer countries, with some interesting outliers and sub-trends.

The science of assigning a concrete number to something as abstract as happiness is, unsurprisingly, neither straightforward nor uncontroversial. This report used three measures of happiness, each evaluated by Gallup polls: life satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10, positive emotional state the prior day (Did you smile a lot yesterday? Did you experience enjoyment?) and negative emotional state the prior day (Did you experience anger or sadness?). The researchers aimed for a sample size of 3,000 people in each country over three years of Gallup polls — which, as they point out, risks skewing the data as events change within those countries over those years.

Here are regional trends in happiness metrics over time:

The statistics do, however, seem to mirror some wider medium- and long-term social trends, such as the global recession and the ongoing political instability in parts of the Middle East and Central Africa. Between the 2005-07 period and the 2010-12 period, happiness fell most in the Middle East than in any other part of the world. Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal also did not fare well: On average, people there rated their lives about two-thirds of a point lower than they would before the financial crisis.

Happiness also correlates to things like life expectancy and GDP per capita, though perhaps not quite how you’d expect. While longer lives and more money do correlate to national happiness, they’re not nearly as important as social support, which researchers define as “having someone to count on in times of trouble.” The report also found that perceptions of corruption and generosity (the latter measured by donations to charity in the past month) are better indicators than GDP per capita.

That could help explain, in part, why Scandinavian countries consistently rank at the top: Their wide-ranging social welfare policies, per Denmark’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration, tend to be much stronger than in richer Western countries and are based on the principle that all citizens have a safety net “in case they encounter social problems such as unemployment, sickness or dependency.”

But while there’s obvious value in understanding aggregate happiness — it contributes, after all, to things like health and economic productivity — it’s unclear how well reports like this one really capture that. Countless factors can influence an individual’s perception of her happiness: the order of survey questions, a bad day at work, the weather. As The Post’s Peter Whoriskey reported in 2012, researchers have debated a host of alternative survey methods, from diary-keeping to digital devices, just to overcome the tendency of people to answer these questions differently based on the time of day.

There’s also an entire discourse on the philosophy of happiness, which economist Deirdre McCloskey examined at enormous length in her article skewering happiness economics last year. At one point, she points to the case of a theoretical man “tormented by starvation and civil war” in South Sudan who rated himself as three, “very happy,” on a happiness scale of one to three. But if he won an immigration lottery and left South Sudan, McCloskey argues, he’d undoubtedly become happier. It’s all relative, a matter of perception and experience.

Other economists might point out that McCloskey’s example ties subjective happiness to public policy, which is exactly the type of link they’re trying to make. That’s the big so-what of these rankings and other reports like it: One day, with more and better data, policymakers could embrace happiness, rather than GPD per capita, as an end-goal metric. In fact, former British Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell argues that that t transition has already begun.

“This is only the second World Happiness Report,” he writes, “but already the importance of well-being as the goal of policy is spreading.”