Let’s be honest. America is not exactly the happiest place in the world to live. Not by a long shot. A complete list of all the causes would take up another entire column. Needless to say, a lot of people are pretty miserable right now.
A study published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network confirms what most of us already knew: America ranks only seventeenth out of 156 nations in the 2013 World Happiness Report.
The report, released last October, was created by a coalition of researchers at the University of British Columbia, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the London School of Economics and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The team analyzed Gallup Poll data from the past three years in order to rank each of the 156 countries on quality of life based on criteria such as personal freedom, life expectancy and access to social support networks.
According to the study, Denmark is currently the happiest country on earth, followed by Norway and Switzerland; The Netherlands and Sweden rounded out the top five on the list. Canada took sixth place, while surprisingly even Mexico outranked the U.S.
Denmark also took the top spot in 2012, receiving the highest combined score on a scale of zero through 10. This year, the scores ran the gamut from 2.936 (Togo) to 7.693 (Denmark).
Experts attribute several factors to a happy society, and Denmark generally leads the pack in every category. Danes live in a country where the people contribute a lot to making their society work. They feel a collective responsibility to each other and the well-being of their fellow citizens.
Danes take pride in their government and are deeply involved in the democratic process. During the last major election in 2011, an incredible 87.7 percent of the population voted.
More than 40 percent of Danes do charitable work of some kind, and this civic duty — combined with the economic security and social mobility to support it — results in a high rate of volunteerism.
The economic value of this unpaid work is worth billions to the Danish government. The total impact of this sector of the economy alone represents 9.6 percent of the country’s total Gross Domestic Product.
Denmark regularly ranks among the top five countries in the World Economic Forum’s yearly report on gender equality. A major contributing factor to this trend is the strong presence of women in leadership roles. Political parties in Scandinavia introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 70s which have resulted in high ratios of female legislators. The USA was ranked outside the top twenty in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report.
Access to medical care is another important measure of happiness.
In Denmark, subsidized health care is considered essential and a source of widespread public support. Danish citizens expect and receive health care as a fundamental right, guaranteed to every citizen. A case in point is maternity leave. American women scrape by with an average of only 12 weeks of leave, while Danish parents receive a total of 52 weeks off: and that includes both mom and dad.
America is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t require companies to give employees paid vacations. In Scandinavia and throughout the eurozone, federal laws mandate annual and sick leave for workers and these laws apply to U.S. corporations such as McDonald’s and Starbucks — even though they’re not required to provide the same benefits to their American workforce.
Labor unions play a major role in keeping wages high for workers in Denmark. Danish society is extremely equitable. The income gap in the U.S. is the highest in the industrialized world. The disparity is only getting worse as wages continue to fall. Half of the U.S. population is now considered poor or low-income.
Freedom of the press is also important to Danes. Denmark consistently ranks in the top ten on the World Press Freedom Index. The USA placed 32nd on the list this year, right behind Suriname.
Another recent study published in the Evolutionary Psychology Journal showed a correlation between religious beliefs and happiness. Secular societies such as Denmark are generally happier and more secure. Religion flourishes when a society is dysfunctional and impoverished. Danes are prosperous and have a vast support network, so everyone is able to share the wealth.
Denmark has the highest taxes in the world as a percentage of the overall economy, but most Danes value the social safety net they receive in return, including subsidized childcare, education, a low crime rate and a very high standard of living.
The government has recently been forced to cut back on some benefits, including student loans and unemployment insurance — but it’s still one of the most generous welfare states in the world.
Democratic socialism in Denmark works because it proves that democracy can be extended to all citizens and not simply for sale to the highest bidder.