If you've been feeling happy lately, don't be surprised —Canada, according to a United Nations survey, is one of the happiest nations on the planet.

Canada placed fifth in the first World Happiness Report, an attempt to measure social and economic well-being around the world that was tabled during a special conference at the UN on Monday. And if there was one surprise in the document it might be this: a nation's happiness is not necessarily tied to its economy.

Although wealthy nations such as Denmark and Norway lead the rankings while poor nations including Togo and Benin ranked at the bottom, the report noted social factors such as the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom were more important than wealth. 

'GNP [gross national product] by itself does not promote happiness.'— Economist Jeffery Sachs

Japan's representative Joe Nakano told the conference this was certainly true in his country.

"A number of recent studies have shown that, in many developed countries, including Japan, happiness is not proportional to economic wealth," Nakano said. "This finding, often called the 'paradox of happiness,' has given rise to international discussion on how to enhance individual well-being through government policies."

The report also listed a number of practical suggestions for governments to promote happiness among their citizens, including helping people meet their basic needs, reinforcing social systems, implementing active labour policies, improving mental health services, promoting compassion, altruism and honesty, and helping the public resist hyper-commercialism.

The happiest nations, average life evaluation score 7.6 on the survey's 0-to-10 scale, are:

  • Denmark.
  • Norway.
  • Finland.
  • Netherlands.
  • Canada.

The least happy countries, average life evaluation scores of 3.4:

  • Togo.
  • Benin.
  • Central African Republic.
  • Sierra Leone.

The United States placed 11th on the list, the United Kingdom 18th.

Jeffery Sachs, a prominent development economist at Columbia University in New York who edited the report along with John Helliwell and Richard Layard, said happiness could be achieved independent of economic well-being.

"GNP [gross national product] by itself does not promote happiness," Sachs told the conference. "The U.S. has had a three- time increase of GNP per capita since 1960, but the happiness needle hasn't budged. Other countries have pursued other policies and achieved much greater gains of happiness, even at much lower levels of per capita income."

However, the report noted, unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours

Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation that tops Asia in the report, convened Monday's meeting seeking to develop a new economic model based on principles of happiness and well being. Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley told the conference a new model is vital if mankind is to avoid its current unsustainable and self-destructive course.

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"The GDP-led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. It is the cause of our irresponsible, immoral and self-destructive actions," Thinley said. "The purpose of development must be to create enabling conditions through public policy for the pursuit of the ultimate goal of happiness by all citizens."

The conference titled "Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm," brought together hundreds of representatives of government, academics and other civic leaders to discuss the issue. All endorsed the importance of happiness, though not necessarily Bhutan's proposed index.  

  

With files from The Associated Press