How happy are we?

Denmark is the world's happiest country, according to the latest survey by the Gallup World Poll.

The survey, conducted between 2005 and 2009, asked thousands of respondents in 155 countries to reflect on two types of well-being: "life evaluation" and "daily experiences". For the former, subjects ranked their overall satisfaction with their lives using a score from 1 to 10. For the latter, subjects were asked how they had felt the previous day, such as whether they felt well-rested, respected, free of pain and intellectually engaged. Subjects with high, medium and low scores were then classified as "thriving", "struggling" and "suffering" respectively. The percentage of "thriving" individuals in each country determined its ranking.

Besides top-ranked Denmark, Scandinavia has three other countries - Finland, Norway and Sweden - in the top five. The researchers concluded that money does buy happiness, as countries with high GDP win out, and there is an association between life satisfaction and income.
In making sense of the survey results, one crucial point has to be noted. Money does matter, but it is not just how rich a country is that determines how happy it is. Otherwise, the countries' happiness ranking should be the same as or similar to their GDP per capita ranking. But this is not the case. Take Luxembourg for example. The country has the world's highest GDP per capita according to IMF's 2009 figure, but it is only 28th in the happy country ranking. The discrepancy of Hong Kong is even more dramatic. Ranked 25th in GDP per capita, Hong Kong occupies a lowly position of 81 when it comes to happiness.

The determining factor is the proportion of people who are "thriving". Denmark is the world's happiest country, despite ranking only 5th in GDP per capita, by virtue of having 82 percent of its people "thriving" (and only 17 percent "struggling" and 1 percent "suffering"). Hong Kong, on the other hand, has only 19 percent of the people "thriving" (but 65 percent "struggling" and 16 percent "suffering"). So it is not just the net wealth of a country that determines its happiness but also the proportion of people thriving and having rewarding daily experiences. It is an issue of social equality.

Looked at in this light, Hong Kong may be fairly rich in terms of GDP per capita, but the wealth is not equally distributed, resulting in having only a small proportion of people "thriving" but a large proportion of peopls "struggling". So its people are only about as happy as those in countries such as Iran and Nigeria and less happy than those in Cuba, Kazakhstan, etc. Our money has not brought happiness for the majority of us.

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