World Getting Happier

The new World Values Survey is out and these dismal United States comes in 16th in the world in the WVS happiness rankings, just between such Scandinavian hellholes as Sweden and Norway. You’ll see the usual Latin American bonus in the data, with Puerto Rico, Colombia, and El Salvador populating the upper reaches of the rankings. However, the U.S. has now pulled ahead Mexico. Maybe it’s because all the Mexicans who moved to the U.S. Denmark retains its happiness crown.

The real news is that happiness increased in so many places. Univesity of Michigan political scientist Ronald Ingelhart, director of the WVS, explains why. From the University of Michigan press release:

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—People in most countries around the world are happier these days, according to newly released data from the World Values Survey based at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Data from representative national surveys conducted from 1981 to 2007 show the happiness index rose in an overwhelming majority of nations studied.

“It’s a surprising finding,” said U-M political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who directs the World Values Surveys and is the lead author of an article on the topic to be published in the July 2008 issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. “It’s widely believed that it’s almost impossible to raise an entire country’s happiness level.”


The new findings from the World Values Surveys not only show that during the past 25 years, happiness has in fact risen substantially in most countries. Fully as important as the fact that happiness rose is the reason why. In recent decades, low-income countries such as India and China have experienced unprecedented rates of economic growth, dozens of medium-income countries have democratized and there has been a sharp rise of gender equality and tolerance of ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians in developed societies.

Economic growth, democratization and rising social tolerance have all contributed to rising happiness, with democratization and rising tolerance having even more impact than economic growth. All of these changes have contributed to providing people with a wider range of choice in how to live their lives—which is a key factor in happiness.

The people of rich countries tend to be happier than those of poor countries, but even controlling for economic factors, certain types of societies are much happier than others.

“The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives,” Inglehart said.

The world is getting better. Wealth and freedom makes it better.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center