Global 'happiness index' ranks Canada 23rd

A global annual 'happiness barometer' ranks Canada as the 23rd happiest nation in the world, out of 58 countries.

Expectations, cultural perspectives define happiness, pollster says

A Japanese family plays with artificial snow in a snow dome in Tokyo. Despite being hit with devastating natural disasters in 2011, Japan is the 23rd happiest country in the world, tied with Canada, according to a survey. (Koji Sasahara/Associated Press)

An annual "happiness barometer" ranks Canada the 23rd happiest nation out of 58 in the lead-up to the new year.

Leger Marketing surveyed nearly 53,000 people in 58 countries, asking participants to state whether they perceived themselves as "happy" or "unhappy" in 2011.

Fiji was the happiest, according to the Global Barometer of Happiness. And, in a surprise to the pollsters, Afghanistan recorded higher happiness numbers than the United States.

About 60 per cent of the 1,003 Canadians who responded described themselves as happy, and 13 per cent said they were feeling down.

A large proportion — about 26 per cent — of the Canadians surveyed couldn't say how they felt, said David Scholz, executive vice-president of Leger Marketing in Toronto.

That Canada didn't rank among the top five happiest countries may surprise some people, but Scholz said the results may have something to do with how much Canadians want out of their lives.

Expect 'spectacular' happiness

"I think in Canada, we have a lot of high expectations," he said. "We expect happiness to be something spectacular.

"But what we define as 'happiness' is very different from what others around the world define as happiness. It's a bit of 'What are you used to, and what are you expecting?' We want more."

The survey assigned each country a "net happiness" score, calculated by subtracting the percentage of unhappy respondents from the percentage of happy ones.

Differences in cultural perspectives about happiness yielded some unexpected results for the pollsters.

"It's only by a few points, but people in Afghanistan are happier than people in the United States right now."— David Scholz, executive vice-president of Leger Marketing in Toronto

Canada's net happiness score of 47 per cent, for example, tied with Japan's — a nation that was crippled this year by a series of deadly disasters, including an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Afghanistan, which had a net happiness score of 35 per cent, beat the United States, at 33 per cent.

"That was one [result] that stood out for us as the most impressive result," Scholz said. "And it's only by a few points, but people in Afghanistan are happier than people in the United States right now. And a big part of it is what's changed in Afghanistan."

An overall positive outlook in the war-scarred nation might reflect the de-escalation of aggression and violence there.

Fiji ranked happiest country

"In the United States, not much has changed over the past year or little while," Scholz said. "And yes, the troops are coming home and that’s positive. But the de-escalation of the Afghanistan conflict doesn’t affect the U.S. the way it does Afghanistan."

While Canada may not be home to the happiest people — that honour goes to the residents of the South Pacific island of Fiji, who scored an 85 per cent on "net happiness" — Canadians still consider themselves to be part of a "happy nation," the survey suggests.

Particularly those living in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

"The happiest place in Canada would be the Prairies," Scholz said, suggesting the return of the Winnipeg Jets and some unseasonably warm weather helped to buoy spirits in 2011. "Look at the year they've had. It's been a very positive year."

Alberta least happy place in Canada

As for the unhappiest place in Canada, Scholz points to Alberta.

Although he said Alberta has low unemployment and crime rates, he speculated that feelings of dissatisfaction there may have to do with expectations. Albertans have apparently set theirs high.

"Do you want more? A big part of wanting more is when Alberta wants to grow and grow and grow," Scholz said.

Rounding out the top five countries for happiness, aside from Fiji, are Nigeria (84 per cent net happiness), the Netherlands (77 per cent), Switzerland (76 per cent) and Ghana (72 per cent).

The least happy place in the world, according to the survey, is Romania, which scored a negative 10 per cent on the net happiness chart.

Despite Canada's so-so spot on the happiness scale, Scholz said there's much to be grateful for, with the country enjoying a relatively stable economy compared to other places.

"We've seen what's happened in the U.S., so hope for an economic prosperity is diminished," he said. "We see next year as a tough year, but we're still going into it with a smile on our face."

The Global Barometer of Happiness study has been conducted annually since 1977 and has a margin of error of plus or minus three to five percentange points. People were surveyed face-to-face and over the phone.