Building a happier society

Reflections and lessons from the World Happiness Report’s findings, published on the International Day of Happiness

The pursuit of happiness has been a goal at both the collective and an individual level. While happiness is understood largely as an abstract idea, social scientists have devised useful metrics in this regard.

The eighth World Happiness Report (2020) has now been published. It is launched on March 20 every year, the day celebrated as International Day of Happiness. The report relies on data from the Gallup World Poll survey. The survey measures satisfaction to track the quality of lives in more than 150 countries.

The report draws on the national average life evaluations in terms of six key variables: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption (or trust). The first two are related to per capita income and health facilities available in the community.

Looking at social environments, the following four aspects are covered: having someone to count on (social support), having a sense of freedom to make key life decisions, generosity, and trust (absence of corruption). From these perspectives (social environment) inequality of well-being is more important than income inequality in explaining average levels of happiness.

“Well-being inequality significantly reduces average life evaluations, suggesting that people are happier living in societies with less disparity in the quality of life”. This misfortune on happiness (due to income inequality) is moderated by the strength and warmth of the social fabric. Though hardships are more prevalent for those at the bottom of the well-being ladder, a trusting social environment raises the happiness of those in distress so creating greater equality of well-being in the society.

A society based on care for others is a society where the level of distress is low, and happiness is comparatively higher. Social and institutional trust, high incomes, close social support and frequent meetings with friends are the key social environment related factors which help in having high level of happiness in the society.

The factors identified to make countries happy are social trust, trust in institutions, and social connections. Nordic countries - Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland - are among the happiest in the world.

Today almost 55 percent of the world population lives in urban areas. Urbanisation is considered an instrument of economic growth and higher living standards, one would expect that this increase in urbanisation would be associated with a rise in happiness.

Though people in urban centres should be happier due to income opportunities and greater access to basic facilities, in some cases, rural communities are found to be happier than major urban centres. This is due to the phenomenon of Urban Paradox, dynamic growth and associated social exclusion in urban areas. As per the report, “higher community belonging and lower inequality in the rural communities together account for most of the life satisfaction difference”. Irrespective of the origin (urban or rural) of a community, in a society people are happier when they trust one another and their institutions, and care about the welfare of others.

Higher levels of interpersonal and institutional trust make individuals better-off than others in several negative situations: including ill-health, unemployment, low incomes, discrimination, family breakdown and fears about safety.

The main strength in the Nordic model is the fact that these societies do not have the deep class divides and economic inequality. In equal societies, the trust level (social and institutional trust), social cohesion and generosity among people normally are very high. 

A strong social environment is a buffer against life challenges, where a strong social environment lowers the happiness loss that would otherwise be triggered by adverse circumstances.

The natural environment is one of the key factors in increasing individual happiness. The report finds that green or blue spaces or a variety of (intuitively pleasant) weather conditions are associated with an increase in the happiness scale.

Countries having a higher sustainable development goals (SDGs) index score tend to do better in terms of subjective well-being — with the Nordic countries topping both the rankings. The report found that a higher SDGs Index score has strong correlation with higher subjective well-being.

Finland has the world-leading average score in happiness. It occupies the top spot for the third year in a row.

The main question is what exactly makes Nordic citizens so exceptionally satisfied with their lives? Focusing on just a single answer to the question may result in distorted interpretations. Interestingly, there are four myths which contradict the idea of happiness in Nordic countries: cold weather, smallness, homogeneity, and high suicide rates. But the many positive aspects of life in these countries make them strong candidates to be at the top of the world happiness rankings.

The foremost reason for their happiness is easy access to relatively generous welfare benefits, and a regulated labour market (where the employees are not exploited). Due to the extensive welfare system, the Nordic countries are better able to make their citizens less vulnerable to economic insecurity than other countries. The second main reason is the highest level of institutional quality in the Nordic countries. The third main reason is low levels of income inequality in the Nordic countries.

The presence of trust in the society makes people’s well-being more resilient to various national crises.

In short, the main strength in the Nordic model is the fact that these societies do not have the deep class divides and economic inequality. In equal societies, the trust level (social and institutional trust), social cohesion and generosity among people normally are very high.

Now the key question is what can Pakistan learn from the Nordic countries’ model of happiness? One of the key elements is the pursuit of a more equal society, an established fundamental requirement for building a happy society. A sense of community and unity among the citizens are crucial in building a happier society, for which a divided society (class-based society) is a big hurdle. For those interested in building a welfare state like that of Medina, the Nordic countries offer an example what ends states can pursue in the current times.


Dr Amir Rafique is Assistant Professor, Department of Management Sciences, COMSATS University, Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]


Dr Abdur Rehman Cheema writes on social and economic policy issues. He can be reached at [email protected]

Building a happier society