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Danish residents have consistently rated themselves as the happiest in the world for years in several different studies.
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updated 6/6/2011 7:39:52 AM ET 2011-06-06T11:39:52

What makes people happy? The question, which has been debated by philosophers for centuries, now is being tackled by international bureaucrats and the results are interesting, to say the least.

24/7 Wall St. analyzed the new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Better Life Index to objectively determine the happiest countries in the world. The Index is based on 11 measurements of quality of life including housing, income, jobs, community, education, the environment, health, work-life balance, and life satisfaction. We made “life satisfaction” the cornerstone of our index because it is as good a proxy for “happiness” as the survey provides. We then compared “life satisfaction” scores to the other measurements to find those economic and socio-political realities that had the highest and lowest correlation to happiness.

The happiest people in the developed world get loads of social services without having to work too hard. Having abundant natural resources, a thriving services sector and a fairly homogeneous population helps as well. The OECD study no doubt would have had different results had it included politically unstable countries in the Middle East or large emerging economies where political unrest threatens to bubble over such as China.

24/7 Wall St. also looked at one critical factor that the OECD study overlooked — economic stability. Our measure of this was total national debt as a percent of GDP. The figure helps determine a country's ability to maintain present tax levels and social services. Odds are that countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios are more likely to need austerity policies to reign-in their government spending. Otherwise, their debt costs will soar.

Nations with long-term economic strength can also afford to support employment, education, and make health care widely available. Happiness viewed in this way means that people are more likely to feel better about themselves in Norway, which has almost no debt and great social services, than in Greece, which must slash entitlement spending or risk defaulting on its debt.

Old, stable nations of northern Europe took five of the top 10 spots on our list. These include Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark. Switzerland is also on the list and has many characteristics in common with the Scandinavian countries. The resource-rich, English-speaking countries of Australia and Canada made the cut as well. Noticeably absent from the list are any OECD nations in Latin America, southern and eastern Europe and Asia. Many of the southern European nations like Greece, Portugal, and Spain are in economic trouble and have high unemployment. The employment and education opportunities are not as good in Mexico as in Canada, nor is the access to high-quality health care. Japan and South Korea each have stable societies, but the people in both countries tend to work long hours and have limited leisure time.

The happiest countries seem to be places where there is a good balance of work and leisure time. Not all nations can afford to keep unemployment low through government subsidies. Not all countries can afford to provide universal medical coverage. Not all countries can afford to educate almost all of their children, which in turn supports extremely high literacy rates and builds a population of skilled workers.

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The ten nations on this list are rich in natural resources or highly developed service sectors. These are assets which are in short supply worldwide, and that bolsters the foundations of the economies in these countries. Money alone doesn't buy happiness, but it sure helps.

This is the 24/7 Wall St list of the Ten Countries With The Happiest People, most of which have bought and paid for prosperity because their economies have allowed them to do so.

10. Austria
Life satisfaction score: 8.39
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 65.7 percent (23rd lowest highest)
Employment Rate: 7.87 (9th best)
Self-reported health: 6.57 (19th best)
Employees working long hours: 8.01 (24th best)
Disposable income: 5.34 (3rd best)
Educational attainment: 8.43 (13th best)
Life expectancy: 7.58 (13th best)

Austria has the one of the highest levels of scores for disposable income (the amount of money the household earns after taxes) in the OECD. Roughly 72 percent of Austrians between the ages of 15 and 64 are working, compared to the OECD average of 65 percent. Only 1.13 percent of working-age Austrians have been unemployed for more than a year, compared to an average of 2.7 percent across the 34 OECD nations, which contributes to the country’s long-term employment. According to the OECD’s latest economic outlook report, Austrian businesses have largely avoided having to implement layoffs to offset the effect of the recession, employing practices like “labor hoarding” which reduces working hours and requires workers to work part-time and share job shifts.

9. Israel
Life satisfaction score: 8.71
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 74.7 percent (26th lowest)
Employment Rate: 4.23 (25th best)
Self-reported health: 8.29 (10th best)
Employees working long hours: 5.05 (29th best)
Disposable income: n/a
Educational attainment: 8.46 (12th best)
Life expectancy: 8.24 (8th best)

Israel is an outlier among OECD nations because it has a relatively high life satisfaction score, but performs poorly for many of the 19 quality of life measurements. For example, Israel has the sixth worst scores for student reading and the fourth worst scores for long hours worked, with 0.23 percent of workers maintaining extremely long hours compared to a OECD average of less than .1 percent. However, Israel’s score for household wealth (which measures the total worth of a family’s income and property after liabilities) is the fifth-highest across all nations on this list. Each household has an average estimated wealth of more than $62,000, compared to an average of less than $37,000. Part of the reason is low taxes — the country has an income tax rate of 6.3 percent of GDP, the sixth-lowest in the OECD.

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8. Finland
Life satisfaction score: 8.71
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 41.6 percent (15th lowest)
Employment score: 6.77 (14th best)
Self-reported health: 6.25 (21st best)
Employees working long hours: 9.32 (9th best)
Disposable income: 4.38 (15th best)
Educational attainment: 8.43 (13th best)
Life expectancy: 6.92 (18th best)

For many of the metrics considered by the OECD for its “Better Life Initiative,” Finland ranks about average. The country stands out in a few categories, however, causing it to rank eighth best for “life satisfaction.” The category in which Finland does the best is education. Finnish students have the second best reading skills among students in all OECD countries, behind only South Korea. According to OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, literacy is one of the most reliable predictors of economic and social well-being. In 2009, the average student in Finland scored 536 out of 600 in literacy. The OECD average is 493. The quality of Finland’s educational system can be attributed to the high respect the country shows its teachers. Teaching is “one of the most sought-after professions in the country,” according to the OECD. Finland also scores very well regarding the work-life balance. Citizens work almost 100 fewer hours per year than the OECD average. Also, 76 percent of mothers are employed once their children begin school — the fifth highest rate. This implies that mothers in Finland are largely able to balance family life and work.

7. Switzerland
Life satisfaction score: 9.03
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 20.2 percent (5th lowest)
Employment score: 10 (best)
Self-reported health: 8.51 (6th best)
Employees working long hours: 8.83 (17th best)
Disposable income: 5.3 (5th best)
Educational attainment: 9.35 (8th best)
Life expectancy: 9.45 (2nd best)

Switzerland has roughly the same level of life satisfaction as Israel, but unlike the Middle Eastern country, it scores near the top in most of these quality-of-life indices. The small, wealthy country bordering France and Germany scores in the top ten for nine out of the 20 OECD measurements, and in the top 20 for all but three. Swiss residents have the second-highest life expectancy in the OECD (82.2 years) and the highest rate of employment (79 percent of working-age residents). Switzerland also has a high rate of mothers who are employed after their children begin school — 79 percent compared to an OECD average of 65 percent. The Swiss government subsidizes maternity leave for pregnancy and for up to 16 weeks following birth, which may provide an incentive for businesses to employ pregnant women.

6. Sweden
Life satisfaction score: 9.03
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 33.7 percent (9th lowest)
Employment score: 8.18 (6th best)
Self-reported health: 8.19 (11th best)
Employees working long hours: 9.86 2nd best)
Disposable income: 5.02 (10th best)
Educational attainment: 9.06 (10th best)
Life expectancy: 8.35 (7th best)

Sweden excels in a number of categories which make the lives of its citizens easier. The most striking of these is outdoor air quality, for which Sweden has the best out of all OECD countries. According to the Swedish government, its goal is that “the air should be so clean that no damage is inflicted on people's health, and animals, plants and cultural values.” Swedes have an above-average trust in their political institutions and above-average voter turnout for elections. The country also has the second highest level of “governmental transparency when drafting regulations,” further evidence of trust in the government. People in Sweden generally have a good balance between work and personal life. They certainly are not overworked, as only 0.01 percent of the population put in more than 50 hours a week on average, the second lowest amount among these countries.

5. The Netherlands
Life satisfaction score: 9.03
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 51.8 percent (20th lowest)
Employment score: 8.79 (4th best)
Self-reported health: 8.45 (7th best)
Employees working long hours: 10.0 (the best)
Disposable income: 4.86 (12th best)
Educational attainment: 7.19 (19th best)
Life expectancy: 7.25 (16th best)

Ninety-one percent of Dutch residents report being satisfied with their lives, more than any other country in the OECD. This is likely due in part to high scores for personal life and a good balance between work and leisure. In some countries, such as Turkey and Estonia, that figure is more than 10 percent. Dutch citizens also spend 70 percent of their day on personal care, leisure, eating and sleeping, the third-most of any country. This amount of leisure time reflects the national policy of work equality that comes from sharing of labor. In the 1980’s, less than 40 percent of the country’s working-age women were employed. That number is now more than 70 percent as a result of aggressive gender equality laws called the “emancipation plan.”

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4. Australia
Life satisfaction score: 9.03
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 10.9 percent (3rd lowest)
Employment score: 8.05 (8th best)
Self-reported health: 9.18 (4th best)
Employees working long hours: 6.96 (28th best)
Disposable income: 5.16 (8th best)
Educational attainment: 6.62 (22nd best)
Life expectancy: 8.68 (3rd best)

Australia’s performance varies when it comes to quality of life measurements. Seventy one percent of Australians reportedly trust their political institutions, compared to the OECD average of 56 percent. Australia also had the highest voter turnout among registered voters for the most recent election on record — 96 percent. Australians are also generally in good health. The country’s average life expectancy is two years longer than the OECD average. Tobacco consumption has also decreased by 50 percent since 1983, giving the country one of the lowest rates in the world and greatly reducing the risks of many chronic diseases. The country fares worse in other categories, however. Fourteen percent of employed people in the country work more than 50 hours a week on average, one of the highest percentages in the OECD. Joblessness for single-parent families is also a major problem in Australia, affecting more than 50 percent of such families in 2009. According to the OECD, if the problem is not addressed, that number will increase 20 percent over the next 25 years. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, however, overall unemployment, which was 4.9 percent as of April 2011, is the best it has been since January 2009.

3. Norway
Life satisfaction score: 9.35
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 26 percent (third lowest)
Employment score: 8.98 (3rd best)
Self-reported health: 8.34 (9th best)
Employees working long hours: 9.47 (5th best)
Disposable income: 5.82 (2nd best)
Educational attainment: 8.37 (15th best)
Life expectancy: 7.69 (12th best)

Eighty-four percent of Norway’s population is currently satisfied with their lives, compared to an average OECD rate of 54 percent. There are likely several reasons for this, as the Scandinavian country scored very well for housing, disposable income, and employment. Seventy-five percent of Norway’s working-age population is employed, and only 0.34 percent of the population has been unemployed for more than a year. This is the one of the best rates in the OECD. Norway has the second highest disposable income among all countries on this list, behind only the United States. The average person across all 34 OECD nations works an average of 1,739 hours per year. The average Norwegian works just over 1,400 hours per year as the result of aggressive labor laws. For example, the country recently imposed sanctioned paternity leave, according to the International Labor Organization.

2. Canada
Life satisfaction score: 9.68
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 36 percent (11th lowest)
Employment score: 7.86 (10th best)
Self-reported health: 9.73 (2nd best)
Employees working long hours: 9.28 (10th best)
Disposable income: 5.16 (8th best)
Educational attainment: 9.39 (6th best)
Life expectancy: 7.8 (10th best)

Canada scores extremely well in the majority of metrics used to calculate “well-being.” The country has the tenth greatest life expectancy of all OECD countries. Furthermore, 88 percent of people in Canada report being in “good health,” compared to the OECD average of 69 percent. Although this is a subjective measure, it is “a good predictor of people’s future health care use,” according to the OECD. Education is also exceptional in the country. Eighty-seven percent of the population have received a high school degree or more, compared to the OECD average of 73 percent. In addition to this, the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Canada is also relatively safe, with the lowest rate of reported assaults. The country’s homicide rate, while higher than many other OECD countries, is still lower than the OECD average.

1. Denmark
Life satisfaction score: 10
Debt as a percentage of GDP: 39.5 percent (14th lowest)
Employment score: 8.4 (5th best)
Self-reported health: 7.37 (15th best)
Employees working long hours: 9.72 (3rd best)
Disposable income: 4.0 (18th best)
Educational attainment: 7.39 (18th best)
Life expectancy: 5.71 (25th best)

Danish residents have consistently rated themselves as the happiest in the world for years in several different studies. This is in some ways surprising, considering the Scandinavian country received only average scores for several metrics that other highly satisfied countries consistently perform well in. For example, Denmark’s 26 percent income tax as a percent of GDP (the highest in the OECD) has resulted in an average disposable income of $27,080 compared to the OECD average of $36,800. This places Denmark among the bottom half of developed countries for disposable income. The country also ranks in the bottom third life expectancy and just average in self-reported health. However, Danes have one of the strongest senses of friendship and community, with 97 percent reporting they had someone other than a family member that they could rely on. Danish culture and government policy is one of the most leisure-friendly. Denmark’s citizens spend more than 16 hours each week on leisure time, the second-highest rate in the OECD. The government also subsidizes a full year of maternity leave.

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Copyright © 2012 24/7 Wall St. Republished with permission.

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