Last year the new economics foundation came up with the very dubious Happy Planet Index. But there are more reputable sources of international comparisons of happiness and life satisfaction, such as the European Social Survey and the Eurobarometer.
Recent research based on the European Social Survey found very high levels of life satisfaction in Denmark. The researchers say:
One of the most consistent trends is that those [countries] with the highest levels of happiness also reported the highest levels of trust in their governments, the police and the justice system, as well as those around them. Happier people also tended to have plenty of friends and acquaintances, as well as at least one very close friend, or a partner.
Seeing this research reminded me of an article in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal (which seemed devoted to amusement; another article was on whether good-looking medical students are more likely to become surgeons) called ‘Why Danes are smug’, a quasi-academic satire of life satisfaction research.
The hypotheses dismissed include: ‘blondes have more fun’ (there are more blondes in less happy Sweden; they could have added that there are lots in significantly less happy Germany as well); good health (on objective indicators, the Danes rank 13th among the 15 old EU countries); climate (‘colder and cloudier version of the balmy English weather’); marriage (high rates of marriage but correspondingly high rates of divorce); and alcohol consumption (high, but heavy drinking is usually associated with lower well-being, unless the Danes ‘were drunk when they participated in the Eurobarometer surveys’).
Some hypotheses not completely dismissed:
Sporting prowess: In the article link there is a figure with Eurobarometer life satisfaction results since 1975, which shows a spike in Danish happiness after 1992 – when Denmark went into a state of national euphoria after beating Germany 2-0 in the European football championship. The hypothesis isn’t completely silly - Australian Unity Well-being Index surveys carried out after major national events, good and bad, seem to show increases in well-being. These are temporary boosts in Australia, but perhaps the Danes really wanted to defeat the Germans.
Exercise: With 1.6 million members of sports clubs in a country of 5.4 million, plus heavy use of bicycles for transport (along with the also-happy Dutch), the Danes are doing lots of exercise, which is generally found to be positive for well-being.
Expectations: In surveys about their expectations for the coming year, the Danes are in the bottom half of Europe, while Italy and Greece, which score lowly on life satisfaction, are near the top. Low expectations are easily met, leading to high levels of life satisfaction. On the other hand, people who are optimistic tend to be happier now so perhaps these things average out in national surveys.
I think there is a semi-serious point being made here – that happiness research can be hitched to a lot of agendas, and we should be sceptical of them all.