John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The happiest countries on Earth are rich and European; the most miserable are located in impoverished Sub-Saharan Africa.
Where are people all whistles and chuckles? Where are they the most miserable?
If you have a fatalistic view of life, the answer will utterly not surprise you. The planet's happiest denizens reside in wealthy countries, whereas the least joyful live in impoverished nations. People with mid-range levels of contentment seem to have crowded into Russia, for what it's worth.
The geographic inequality of personal satisfaction is evident in this new visualization from Jonathan Hull, a Salt Lake City-based designer whose own level of happiness remains relatively unchanged despite now knowing a big part of how happiness works.
Hull got the idea for this project after reading about Columbia University's inaugural World Happiness Report, commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness. He used that study to build a color-coded Earth in which dark orange is supremely cheery and white is deeply dejected. Then he borrowed GDP info for various countries and made an accompanying map, where darker blues and purple are wealthier places. "Just a bit of 'Does money buy happiness?' kind of approach," he says.
So, does it? Compare for yourself. Here's world happiness:
And here's per capita GDP:
Northern Europe is ground zero for good vibes, with well-to-do countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands taking top billing (lumped together, they boast a "life-evaluation score" of 7.6 out of 10). Several of the richest nations, like Denmark, Norway and Sweden, are also the happiest, and many other sectors of the First World enjoy high peace of mind, as well. The United States slides in at tenth place for happiness, just below Australia and New Zealand.
Africa is by far the least happy place on the planet and among the poorest, according to the happiness experts, as is some of southeast Asia. The most hopeless nations of Togo, Benin, the Central African Republic, and Sierra Leone scrape by on a life-evaluation ranking of 3.4 out of 10. Hull writes:
Graphing the two metrics, a visible trend is apparent. It’s not terribly surprising that the richer countries of western Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Australia trending higher with happiness. Also interesting to note are the outliers – where Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore trend higher in wealth than the the median on happiness in contrast to nations like Costa Rica and Uzbekistan ranking high in happiness in contrast to lower per capita income.
While how much change is jingling in your pocket is a good indicator of how pleased you feel, it's not the only thing that matters. As the UN has noted, "Political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in explaining well-being differences between the top and bottom countries. At the individual level, good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and stable families are crucial."
If the data ever becomes available, Hull says he'd find it "interesting" to make similar maps of the U.S. and see where his own state ranks.
"The metrics for some of those intangibles are always a bit interesting as Utah is a generally positive state, though it also has a high rate of antidepressants which gives a different impression," he says. "The counter to that is that it's also a very dry state in terms of alcohol use, so the medications might just be taking the place of that in contrast to other places."
Maps created by Jonathan Hull