Measuring Happiness

In his influential book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, the British economist Richard Layard catalogs the many methods psychologists now use to measure how happy people are. Self-reported happiness or well-being is generally quite accurate. It is usually confirmed by physical evidence from brainwave tests and by assessments from friends and associates. We actually have good evidence that psychologists' measurements of happiness not only are accurate but also operate effectively across cultures.

The Gallup-Healthways organization conducts regular polls of life satisfaction: a daily poll in the United States and annual surveys in about 150 other countries. The annual country survey tends to find that residents of Nordic countries are, by and large, the happiest people on Earth. While most of the nations at the top of the list are affluent, moderate-income Costa Rica is always high on the charts. The 2009 survey ranked Denmark number one (it usually is), followed by Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden.10

And it's not just the pastries, cell phones, wooden shoes, or bikini teams.

A 2009 article in the conservative-leaning Forbes magazine explained what the top four countries all have in common: They are highly egalitarian, having among the world's smallest gaps between rich and poor; they pay great attention to work-life balance, having some of the world's shortest average working hours; and finally, perhaps shockingly to Americans, they pay some of the world's highest taxes! We'll explore exactly why these things matter later in this book.11

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