Global Report Cards on Happiness and Social Progress – How is the U.S. Doing Versus the Nordic Countries?


I believe that one of our main goals in life is happiness, or at least the pursuit of happiness. In addition, I believe another critical goal is to make society a better place for everyone.

In the past couple of weeks, two organizations have come out with their rankings of the world’s countries, using two different approaches, one focused on happiness and the other on social progress.

It is interesting to compare the results of the United States on these rankings to the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark.

The first report, referred to as the World Happiness Report, is published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of the United Nations, and contains analysis from leading experts in the fields of economics, neuroscience, national statistics, and describes how measurements of subjective well-being can be used effectively to assess national progress.

According to Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University, “The aspiration of society is the flourishing of its members. This report gives evidence on how to achieve societal well-being. It’s not by money alone, but also by fairness, honesty, trust, and good health.”

The results are based on a survey conducted by Gallup that asks the following question:

“Imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. 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?”

The average score was 5.1 (out of 10). Six key variables explained three-quarters of the variation in annual national average scores over time and among countries: real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.

The report found little difference in happiness by gender. On a global average basis, women’s life evaluations are slightly higher than those for men, by about 0.09 on the 10-point scale.

The report does indicate that there were significant differences by age. On a global basis, average life evaluations start high among the youngest respondents, and fall by almost 0.6 point by middle age, being fairly flat thereafter.

The report also highlights four supports for well-being and their underlying neural bases: 1. Sustained positive emotion; 2. Recovery of negative emotion; 3. Empathy, altruism and pro-social behavior; and 8 4. Mind-wandering, mindfulness and “affective stickiness” or emotion-captured attention.

The report provides answers to the question as to which aspects of child development (academic, behavioral, or emotional) are most important in determining whether a person becomes a happy, well-functioning adult. The answer is that emotional development is the best of the three predictors and academic achievement the worst.

Finally, the report looks at the pro-social behavior of members of the society, which entails individuals making decisions for the common good that may conflict with short-run egoistic incentives. The conclusion is that societies with a high level of social capital – meaning generalized trust, good governance, and mutual support by individuals within the society – are conducive to pro-social behavior.

If you would like to read a summary of the report, here is the link. To read the full report, here is the link. Suffice to say that there is a wealth of intriguing data and conclusions in the report, as well as many implications for social policy. If you would like to see a graphic of the top 20 and bottom 20 countries, click here. On the list, you will see that the U.S. is ranked No. 15.

The second world ranking that was released earlier this month is the Social Progress Index. This index uses 52 indicators to measure multiple dimensions of social progress.

Here is a list of the three dimensions, as well as the main categories measured within each dimension.

  • Basic Human Needs
    • Nutrition and Basic Medical Care
    • Water and Sanitation
    • Shelter
    • Personal Safety
  • Foundations of Wellbeing
    • Access to Basic Knowledge
    • Access to Information and Communications
    • Health and Wellness
    • Ecosystem Sustainability
  • Opportunity
    • Personal Rights
    • Personal Freedom and Choice
    • Tolerance and Inclusion
    • Access to Advanced Education

According to Michael Porter, even though the U.S. ranks sixth among covered countries in terms of GDP per capita, we only achieve 16th place in social progress. In addition, on health and wellness, the United States ranks 68th in the world, a position even more striking when you consider that we spend far more on health care per capita than any other country. Despite some improvement over the past two decades, we still rank only 30th in terms of personal safety. Even after a significant education reform movement, we rank 45th in access to basic knowledge. In ecosystem sustainability, despite much lip service, we rank 74th. America continues to be strong in the crucial area of providing rights, freedom, and opportunity for our citizens. But even here the latest data are not where we want them to be.

Here are the complete rankings

When comparing the two rankings, I find it amazing that the top 10 countries are the same in each list, although in different order. Five of the countries, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark, as noted earlier, make up what are known as the Nordic States.

According to Wikipedia, in 2013, The Economist described these countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies” while also looking for ways to temper capitalism’s harsher effects, and declared that the Nordic countries “are probably the best-governed in the world.” The Nordic combination of extensive public provision of welfare and a culture of individualism has been described by Lars Trägårdh, of Ersta Sköndal University College, as “statist individualism.” Some economists have referred to the Nordic economic model as a form of “cuddly” capitalism, with low levels of inequality, generous welfare states and reduced concentration of top incomes, and contrast it with the more “cut-throat” capitalism of the United States, which has high levels of inequality and a larger concentration of top incomes.

So while the Nordic countries sound like great places to live and raise a family, and multiple sources of data support such a claim, I have no desire to live there for one simple reason – it’s too cold.

Now if Florida were to adopt a Nordic mentality of government, then there’s no doubt as to where I would retire, since I would have the best of two worlds. But even if that doesn’t happen, the odds of retiring to Florida versus Finland are pretty high, because at least for me, warm temperatures trump cuddly capitalism.

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