The extent to which a country is “developed” is usually expressed in terms of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GDP of a country is the market value of all its goods and services at any given time. The higher the GDP, the more material goods and wealth that country possesses. The country with the highest GDP is currently the United States, with the UK making it in the top ten at number eight. If the United States is the wealthiest country you would think that its citizens would be the happiest, since with that kind of wealth surely all of life’s necessities can be provided for (healthcare, education, freedoms, security) as well as a number of luxuries.
However, it is important to recognise that GDP does not reflect the income of each citizen. The distribution of wealth in the US, for example, shows that the top 10% own 80% of the country’s wealth, with the bottom 40% owning a mere 0.2%. Although the US scores highly in terms of GDP, this incredible gap between the rich and the poor means that many of its citizens are poor or living in poverty. These huge differences in wealth also apply to race as well, with African American families the most likely to be earning a low income. So, in the case of the US, its impressive GDP score hides the fact that it is one of the country’s with the worst cases of wealth inequality.
More importantly, GDP does not seem to reflect the happiness of any given country. But how can the happiness of a country be measured? Isn’t it something completely subjective? It certainly does seem to be subjective, but that doesn’t mean that surveys cannot reveal how many people subjectively report to be happy. There are also several other indicators which are more likely to indicate the progress of a country, such as life expectancy (which reflects health) and education levels. This is why something called the Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been devised in order to show that GDP, or wealth in general, is not a good indicator of happiness.
The concept has been developed in the Centre for Bhutan Studies. They measure GNH based on the following criteria: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity, and living standards. The reason material wealth is not given any priority as an indicator is because several studies show (Easterlin, 1974; Veenhoven, 1988; Oswald, 1997) that when income drastically increases, subjective well-being does not, and in some cases it can actually fall. What these seminal studies have also found is that happiness depends on relative income (my income compared to yours) rather than absolute income. Furthermore, people who are able to adapt to their circumstances tend to be happier than those who cannot, even when their incomes are very low.
The Happy Planet Index (HPI) has ranked 151 countries across the globe in terms of the long, happy and sustainable lives of the people that live in them. In the 2012 ranking, the happiest country in the world was Costa Rica, followed by Vietnam, Colombia, Belize and El Salvador. These are not countries known to have a particularly high GDP. The UK ranks as the 41st happiest country, while the US doesn’t even make it into the top 50! This could be due to the fact that the HPI takes the ecological footprint of each person into account – each person in the UK and the US has a very substantial ecological footprint, for example. Despite this, other organisations which don’t take into account the country’s ecological footprint still show low GDP countries overtaking countries like the US in terms of happiness. Gallup polls have consistently shown that people in Latin American countries report more positive emotions than people in the US.
We should bear in mind that other studies do yield different results. For example, the Legatum Prosperity Index uses similar indicators of happiness that the GNH uses, such as education, healthcare and subjective reports of well-being. But it uses different indicators as well, such as the stability of political institutions, levels of unemployment and levels of personal freedom. With these different indicators, the happiest country turns out to be Norway, followed by Denmark and Sweden. But in the 2012 rankings, the US and the UK still don’t make it into the top ten. So it seems that however happiness is measured, the wealthiest countries are still not be considered the happiest in the world.
In a study conducted by researchers from the World Health Organisation, nearly 15% of those living in the 10 richest countries reported having at least one depressive episode. The two most depressed countries turned out to be France, followed by the US. The researchers suspect that these rates of depression are related to the level of wealth inequality in the country. Low to middle income countries, such as Mexico, had the smallest percentage of lifetime cases of depression – Mexico being a country where the divide between the rich and the poor in no way resembles that of the US. Depression, therefore, seems to be an illness of affluence. Levels of stress and anxiety are also highest in the wealthiest countries. This could be related to high levels of unemployment, occupational stress, working long hours, lack of community, job competition and unhealthy lifestyle choices.