“Taking all things together on a scale of one to 10, how happy would you say you are?”
With that question and global surveys, the folks at the World Database of Happiness have ranked 95 nations on a happiness scale.
Switzerland's citizens closely trail the Danish, each reporting an average happiness level of 8.1 (out of 10), followed by Iceland (7.8), Finland (7.7), Australia (7.7) and Sweden (7.7), all the way down to grim Moldova (3.5).
While the Netherlands ranks only 15th on the list of the world's happiest countries, its industrial capital, Rotterdam, is home to the database, housed at Reassume University. Its director, Ruut Veenhoven, has made his life's work researching which nations are home to the happiest citizens.
Veenhoven's research shows that Scandinavian nations come out on top, making up five of the 13 happiest nations. Denmark tops the list as a whole — its citizens rank their average happiness as 8.2 on a 10-point scale.
Inspired by Veenhoven's rankings, former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio (and self-proclaimed grouch) Eric Weiner embarked on a quest to visit the happiest places on earth. In his book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World,” Weiner immerses himself in the cultural fabric of the world's happiest countries to pinpoint exactly why residents of some countries, like Iceland and Switzerland, are so downright satisfied with their lives.
The Swiss, Weiner discovered, are efficient and punctual, comparatively wealthy and face hardly any unemployment. Their streets, air and tap water are squeaky clean and chocolate is a national obsession. But Weiner saw no joy in their faces, and reasoned that perhaps it's better to live in this middle range than to vacillate between gleeful moments of elation and gut-wrenching spates of despair. Swiss happiness, he writes, is "more than mere contentment, but less than full-on joy."
Because the country is dark and cold, Weiner was initially skeptical about Iceland's ranking as the fourth-happiest nation in the world. He learned the small nation is quite literally a family; curiously, geneticists have found that all Icelandic citizens are related.
Certain phrases in the Icelandic language, Weiner writes, are even more telling. When people greet each other, the phrase they use roughly translates to “come happy,” and when people part, they utter the equivalent of “go happy.” The country is a favorite stamping ground of artists and cultivates a creative spirit; the government supports writers with generous subsidies.
To provide a stark contrast to Iceland and Switzerland, Weiner visited Moldova. The citizens of this former Soviet republic, according to database figures, rate their happiness at 3.5. The nation, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, had been relatively prosperous, but since the fall of the Berlin wall, per-capita income has fallen to only $880 per year.
But it's not just about money. Nigeria and Bangladesh are poorer and happier, Weiner points out, but Moldova compares itself to Italy and Germany. The country also lacks a distinct culture and any semblance of national pride. Government officials even speak Russian — the language of their oppressors for much of the last century.
So just how does the United States fit into this picture? “Happiness is there for the taking in America,” Weiner writes. “You just need the willpower to find it, and enough cash.” The surprising fact, though, is that America is not as happy — scoring 7.3 and ranking 17th in the database — as it is wealthy. U.S. residents are three times richer than they were in 1950, but the happiness ratings haven't shifted in the past decade. After Sept. 11, researchers found no significant decrease in measured levels of happiness.
“Americans work longer hours and commute greater distances than virtually any other people in the world,” Weiner writes, but “they remain profoundly optimistic.” Two-thirds of Americans say they are hopeful about the future.
Can we predict happiness based on a country's collective “personality?” Not quite. So far, the data reveal national happiness doesn't predictably track average income, type of government — democracy versus dictatorship —or even warm climate.
So with Moldova at the bottom of the happiness ratings are former Soviet republics Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, alongside such troubled African nations as Tanzania, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Thus, while wealth doesn't seem to generate happiness, extreme poverty is more likely to produce the opposite.
It's comforting, though, that most people in the world report being satisfied with their lives. “Virtually every country in the world scores somewhere between five and eight on a 10-point scale,” Weiner writes. “There are a few exceptions.” So while, admittedly, those Scandinavians have it pretty good, the rest of us aren't too far behind. And that's something to be happy about.
© 2012 Forbes.com