How to Rank Countries by Happiness

Ha Ha Valley, Bhutan  ( Ha Ha Valley is author's usage for Ha Valley)

Ancient saints have repeatedly stressed that peace and happiness for humans does not lie merely in increasing material prosperity but much else that has nothing to do with wealth. Things like love, kindness for each other, green valleys and sunshine, inner development contribute far more. It is obvious that one would not be able to enjoy a drive on a wonderful scenic road through a green mountain valley if the very car one is driving is bumpy and rickety. It is necessary to improve our own apparatus, our inner selves in order to find peace and happiness in the world. It is because of this that some are greatly happy with even a little and while others who go through life depressed even with a lot of wealth, just as some children are happy without toys making do with sticks and stones whereas some others are unhappy even with a roomful of toys.

While such thoughts had a strong impact on some ancient Kingdoms for even up to a thousand years after Buddha, they receded with time as lure of material greed reasserted. The message of Buddha in modern times has for the main survived in isolated pockets of Himalayas and around places like Tibet and Bhutan. Therefore while the world was busy comparing Gross Domestic Products, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan charted a different course; Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, His majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the phrase Gross National Happiness (GNH) in 1972. It represents a commitment to building an economy that would serve spiritual values instead of material development alone that is gauged by gross domestic product (GDP).

But while all this sounds good how does one measure the general level of happiness in a country? It is not as easy to define as certain concrete economic parameters; rather it contains much that is abstract and immeasurable. Yet indirect symptomatic indicators can be discovered that can help assess level of happiness of a nation rather quickly. Applying his mind to the concept, this author came up with a simple methodology to do so that requires just four pieces of simply ascertained data. These are described next

Infant Mortality rate

Infant mortality rate of any country is a cumulative effect of many things that indicate the quality of life in a country for there is no task more important for a human than giving birth to and raising a child. Malnutrition, hunger, lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions, impure water, governance deficit, ignorance, wars and natural disasters are some of the things that go to increase infant mortality rates. The happiest countries in the world have low infant mortality rates well under five per thousand births whereas some of the most disturbed countries of sub-Saharan Africa have rates exceeding 100 deaths per thousand births. Such data is easily available in public domain and can be used to rank countries quickly on this basis. Let us call this R1. The lower this rank the less the infant mortality rate. The infant mortality rates of various countries can be found in various places, for example at:

Prison Population

The most repressive regimes in the world usually have high prison populations. This ratio changes with time as the character of ruling power changes. If one may rank countries based on prisoner density defined as number of persons in prisons per thousand persons we can rank countries on this basis to get our second rank. Let us call it R2. Lower the rank, less the prisoners. Such data can be found from various sources, for example:

Intentional Homicide rate

The intentional killing of humans by humans is a measure of the level of stress, crime, insecurity and violence that prevails in a country. Such statistics are collected by different agencies of the world from time to time, for example see:

While some crimes such as rapes or robberies go unreported to different degrees, this is one crime that is reported fairly well in all countries. The statistics are usually tabulated as intentional homicide per 100,000 inhabitants and countries ranked on this basis may be given a rank termed R3

Green Density

Several studies have indicated that humans are healthier, less stressed and happier in green surroundings. The number of trees (fully grown trees that are more than ten feet high) not only measure how harsh or conducive the climate is for life in a country but it also measures how the citizens of that country have cared for the environment and how much open area or crowding exists in a country.  However since it is tedious to estimate the total number of trees in a country, a simple measure is to count the percentage of country under forest cover. Unbuilt open grass lands and farm lands also constitute green areas. Bodies of fresh water add beauty and value to the land as also mountains. A composite measure of green density of a country can then be as follows

Percentage Green Area = Percentage of land under forest cover + percentage under fresh water bodies like lakes and rivers +  percentage of area covered by barren, snow covered or green mountains  + (percentage of land under grass cover and farm lands)/3

However, since this would be a tedious calculation a simpler quicker approximation is to rank countries merely on the basis of percentage forest cover. After avearging with other parameters it would lead to only slight approximation. This data is more easily available as for examplea at: 

Unbuilt area does not mean that there cannot be even a single building in the area but it must be less than one percent of the area under focus. As a first attempt a weight of one third is given to farm and grass lands as compared to forests. Based on this adjusted percentage green area thus deduced countries may be ranked to yield the fourth type of rank R4.

Composite Measure of Happiness

While the four ranks as defined so far can give some ideas of levels of happiness that prevail in a country, a single composite measure combining the four is easier to deal with. This is how they can be combined very simply,

Happiness Rank, HR = (2R1 + R2 + R3 +R4) /5

Thus if a country ranked first on all four counts, it would end up with the top rank of 1 but that would be rare and the cumulative rank in general shall not begin with 1 ( unlike R1 to R4) for any of the countries of the world but with some higher number. In general the result would be in decimals rather than whole numbers. This result can then be arranged in ascending order to give a country rank. If two countries have identical data they would be given the same rank but the rank of the next country below would be skipped by one. It may be noted that a weight twice as high as other parameters has been given to infant mortality rate. This is because it is far more indicative than other parameters in the selection. Similarly education, electricity supply etc. have not been included. People who can live a peaceful, healthy life even without formal education are happier than others who are well educated yet busy in crime, corruption and exploitation. Education can both be a tool for happiness or misery depending on how it is combined with ethical values.  Moreover, what is worthy in both formal and informal education is measured indirectly by parameters selected here.

Such operations can be done in minutes on an excel spread sheet. The actual numbers indicate how close or far away countries are form each other e.g. if two countries had HR values 2 and 2.1, they are close to each other. It may be noted that life expectancy is used by others for rating countries but it has not been used here for two reasons. First the essential aspects of it that influence human well being such as homicide and infant mortality are considered here. Secondly, modern medicine has the means to prolong life often in a compromised state and this does not go to increase human happiness. It is not important how long a human lives but how well he lives while still around that is important for assessing human happiness.

Percentage Happiness

A Percentage Happiness of a country based on the present methodology may be defined as

Percentage Happiness =  (200– HR)/2

The number 200 is chosen as a number slightly smaller than number of countries so as to lead to results in the main between 0 and 100% for most countries and a negative value, a country beyond any remaining hope in its present form, perhaps for some rare one. The round number of 200 is selected here to retain simplicity although number of countries are larger than 200. On averaging may become lager that 200 in a rare case only even though on one or more counts a country attains a rank greater that 200.

Thus only if a country can rank tops on all four scores and get HR =1, it can it achieve near 100% happiness i.e. the best possible on the planet at any given time of human history.

It may be mentioned that some of the data as required for this assessment may be a few years old since it takes time to collect it. Nevertheless it may be used in the assessment as an approximation for most countries with the exception of countries where some major event has taken place for change such as revolution, war, disaster etc. A star may be added in front of the names of those countries for caution.

For ease of reference this Happiness rank may be termed as FC happiness rank and FC happiness percentage, FC standing for Four Criterion. The author has presently refrained form ascertaining and listing countries on this basis. He invites others to do so. Please do give a reference to this note. Just as a guess, perhaps a country like Austria may rank the highest. A country like Bhutan too would certainly rank much higher than other countries much richer to it but ascertaining an exact rank requires further work, hopefully by others.

It may be mentioned that this ranking concerns overall rank of countries. As regards individuals within a country, conditions can vary greatly from one person to another. While an individual can not do a great deal to change overall conditions in his country, he can do everything to change his own personal condition through simple things like planting more trees around his dwelling, working to improve purity of water and food available, ensuring cleanliness and working towards his own personal development in life. We usually get out of life what we put into it and it has been observed that persons who are peaceful and non-violent often escape violence even in violent surroundings.


Table: Rank and Percentage happiness of a country by FC Method

As a first step, a sample calculation with just seven counties was carried out to find percentage happiness for purpose of illustration. The results are shown in table. The results are in agreement with assessment of most other world observers on a qualitative basis and prove the viability of the present method. The present method helps to put a number on qualitative observations, while eliminating any bias that can enter a qualitative assessment. While one may debate and refine the methodology used, one cannot dispute figures.
 Decimal numbers were rounded before presentation. This percentage happiness in this table represents the percentage of the maximum possible happiness levels that are possible on the planet. While Austria achieved 80% of happiness, Bhutan had only 50%. It has to work more on parameters such as infant mortality and incarceration. However it has a much higher score than a much richer country USA that has only 47% happiness.  India too has to work hard on the same parameters as Bhutan  as also to increase forest cover in the country. USA would need radical reforms of its prison system since it fares the worst on this count in the world in order to improve happiness of the people.  Rwanda that has only 5% has a long way to go to reach levels of human civilized existence as prevail on the planet, as also perhaps many other African countries.Even Afghanistan despite it decades of conflict reaches a level of about 20% by the present system, just slightly lower than Nigeria at 21%.

Mexico achieves a level of 35%, a level it can improve overnight by legalizing drugs and thereby also the associated crime and deaths. However, the best possible country in the present selection is Sweden that has achieved an amazing 92% happiness level.

The present calculation is a quick approximate one in the sense the most recent data in different categories may not have been used but rather one that could be most readily accessed. It is hoped that others can refine the results as well as widen it to include more countries.The ranking for R1 to R4 in any case has to be done amongst all the countries of the world and that was done here too. The error caused by the present approximations is expected to fall within a band of five percent i.e. + or minus, 2.5%

A similar calculation was done for UK too and led to a result of 63%, somewhere between Austria and the US, not surprising since UK does keep one leg in the US and another in Europe.Canada at 69% is better than UK but nowhere near the best in Europe.

Rating happiness levels of countries by FC method


While the procedure suggested here would lead to a  reasonable ranking of countries in accordance with the levels of happiness that prevail in a country, it is only a first attempt. Further work by others could improve the method. However, ease of application and simplicity would hopefully be retained in any such future modifications, while also giving credit to the present note for initiating this new approach to assessing happiness of nations. Simple as the present criterion is, it also measures something very simple, happy nations are simply those where most citizens may live secure, clean and healthy lives in green surroundings free of fear of crime from each other or repression from their governments. The present method attempts to rapidly quantify how close various nations come to this goal. 

Final Note for Bhutan: Since this note was inspired by an idea from Bhutan, it is appropriate to end with a suggestion for it. Setting up mother and child centers around the country in collaboration with International NGOs that provide care/nutrition/advice to mother and child for two years, from the moment of conception to until child is 15 months old would bring down infant mortality rates sharply and increase happiness rating greatly.
NOTE: Essential aspects of this note are also available as an online document that researchers doing further work on the topic may quote as reference;

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Ashok said…
A modification was made to the green density portion of this note since it was first published. The original proposal involved a difficult calculation
Ashok said…
Another modification was added today in the way in which percentage happiness is calculated to avoid negative results.

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