Richer people are happier reports the United Nations Conference on Happiness

April 10, 2012, 10:00 am Ariel Schwartz Fast Company

What are the secrets from the happiest people on Earth? Some make sense: Be wealthy, married, and have a job. From there, though, it gets more complicated.


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Happiness isn’t easy to quantify, but a lot of people have tried: Bhutan has its Gross National Happiness survey, global research company Ipsos has its annual world happiness poll, and now Columbia University’s Earth Institute has put out the first World Happiness Report, which has the ambitious goal of surveying the state of happiness in the world today and looking at how the science of happiness plays into it.

The report, commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness (yes, that exists), contains over a hundred pages of musings on world happiness. Here’s an ultra-abridged version of the findings.

  • Richer people are happier than poorer people on average, but wealth is only one factor in overall happiness. The same goes for countries, where factors like personal freedom, lack of corruption, and social support are more important.

  • Unemployment obviously reduces happiness, but not because of what you may think. It’s not the loss of income, but the loss of things like self-esteem and workplace social life that lead to a drop in happiness. High unemployment rates can trigger unhappiness even in the employed, who suddenly become fearful of losing their jobs. According to the study, even low-quality jobs yield more satisfaction than being unemployed.

  • In some countries, the self-employed report higher levels of job satisfaction than the employed. The study found a positive correlation between happiness and self-employment in both American and European data for example, but not in Latin America. The possible reason: Self-employment may be a necessity in developing countries where formal employment is not as readily available. When it’s not a choice, it doesn’t lead to happiness.

  • Higher living standards correspond with increased happiness in some countries, but not all. In the U.S., for example, happiness levels have remained stagnant while living standards have risen over the past 50 years or so.

  • Levels of trust (i.e. whether you think someone would return a cash-stuffed wallet) have fallen dramatically over time in certain countries--including the U.S. and U.K.--but risen in others, like Denmark and Italy. One explanation may be that overall life satisfaction has dropped in the former countries, but has risen in many continental European countries.

  • Lack of perceived equality can reduce happiness. The report explains: "The most positive results are in an interesting time-series study using both the U.S. General Social Survey and Eurobarometer. This finds that in both the U.S. and Europe increases in inequality have (other things equal) produced reductions in happiness. The effect has been stronger in Europe than in the U.S. This difference probably reflects ideological differences: Some 70% of Americans believe that the poor have a chance of escaping poverty, compared with only 40% of Europeans."

  • Mental health is the biggest contributing factor to happiness in all countries, but only a quarter of mentally ill people get sufficient treatment in the most developed nations.

  • Married people across the world (studies have been done in the U.S., EU countries, Switzerland, Latin America, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia) claim that they’re happier than single counterparts. A stable family life also contributes to happiness.

It’s not hard to conclude from these findings that gross domestic product is not the ultimate indicator of happiness.

The report sums it up well:

"GDP is important but not all that is important. This is especially true in developed countries, where most or all of the population has living standards far above basic material needs. Except in the very poorest countries happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than with income. And in the richest countries it is essential not to subordinate the happiness of the people to the 'interests of the economy,' since the marginal utility of income is low when income is so high. The economy exists to serve the people, not vice versa. Incremental gains in income in a rich country may be much less beneficial to the population than steps to ensure the vibrancy of local communities or better mental health."

Check out the whole report here (PDF).

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