World Happiness Report ranks Canada 5th

Measuring happiness is a tricky thing, but a group of researchers who compile a report that looks at “subjective well-being” in more than 150 countries says Canada is among the happiest in the world.

Income is important, but just part of the story in determining 'subjective well-being'

A new report ranks Canada fifth for 'subjective well-being' out of 158 countries included in the 2015 World Happiness Report. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters )

Canadians are a relatively happy bunch — the fifth happiest in the world, according to new data from the 2015 World Happiness Report released Thursday. 

The report issues a score on a scale of zero to 10 based on Gallup World Poll data collected from people in more than 150 countries between 2012 and 2014. 

Researchers then analyze the "life evaluation" data to rank countries, ostensibly providing a comparative overview of people's "subjective well-being" in each. The report was first published in 2012, with new editions released every 18 months.

Canada, which got a score of 7.427, for fifth place, was narrowly surpassed by:

  • Switzerland (7.587).
  • Iceland (7.561).
  • Denmark (7.527).
  • Norway (7.522).

When the report was last published in 2013, Canada ranked sixth, with Denmark in the top slot.

The variables used to formulate final scores are:

  • Income.
  • Healthy years of life expectancy.
  • Availability of social support.
  • Generosity (i.e. how many people have donated to charity in the last month).
  • Perceptions of corruption in government and business.
  • Individuals' perceptions of their personal freedoms.

John Helliwell, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the report, said the ultimate goal is to broaden the scope by which governments assess the state of their countries, and to get the general public interested in new ways of measuring well-being.

"The people who design our institutions and govern our lives need to pay attention," he told CBC News.

"If there is a broad public understanding of the evidence and its implications, then the political process starts to take more notice."

Helliwell also hopes that statistical agencies within individual countries will begin collecting the kind of data presented in the report to identify and learn lessons from the happiest regions and communities.

Social networks

The average score in the top 10 countries is 7.4 — more than twice as high as the bottom 10, which come in at an average of 3.4. 

According to the report, income differences account for "as much as one-third" of the gap in the average scores of the top and bottom 10 countries, because "of the six factors, income is the most unequally distributed among countries."

For example, the income measure used in the report, GDP per capita, is on average 25 times higher in the top 10 countries than in the bottom 10, according to the researchers. 

The five countries at the bottom of the list are:

  • Rwanda (3.465).
  • Benin (3.340).
  • Syria (3.006).
  • Burundi (2.906).
  • Togo (2.839).

The U.S. ranked 15th overall, bested slightly by its southern neighbour Mexico. 

But Helliwell said one theme persists in the raw data and analysis regardless of income — "the importance of social factors and the norms and networks that connect people."

These networks include "everything from the degree of trust and collaboration in the workplace to time spent with family and friends, for example."

Happiness and global recession

The authors also analyzed how happiness may have been affected by the global recession.

Researchers looked at numbers from 2005-07 and 2012-14 and found that of the 125 countries with data for both periods, "53 had significant increases, ranging from 0.15 to 1.12 points on the 0 to 10 scale, while 41 showed significant decreases, ranging from –0.11 to –1.47 points, with the remaining 26 countries showing no significant change."

Canada counts among the countries that appeared to be relatively unchanged, though there was a slight happiness decrease of about 0.02 points. 

Greece, which took a heavy hit during the recession and continues to struggle to claw its way out of a financial crisis, had the most dramatic decrease of the countries listed: nearly 1.5 points. 

The comparison of pre- and post-recessions scores provides insight into the importance of social connections, Helliwell said.

For example, the banking systems of Iceland and Ireland were decimated by the recession, yet their scores remained high because "they have some of the strongest social connections in the world."

Iceland and Ireland, for example, have the highest number of people who say they have someone they can count on when times are tough.

While these connections are more difficult to quantify, Helliwell says, they are critical to understanding why some countries managed to maintain their happiness during the darkest period of the recession.

The 2015 report comes on the heels of a "happiness" study by Statistics Canada. That report, which looked at life satisfaction in different regions and cities, put Saguenay, Que., on top and Vancouver dead last.