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Happiest Nation Rankings

Billy Ocean

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1. Denmark

2. Norway

3. Switzerland

4. The Netherlands

5. Sweden

6. Canada

7. Finland

8. Austria

9. Iceland

10. Australia

World's happiest nations are...

(CNN) -- Those looking for greater happiness and satisfaction in life should head to northern Europe, but steer clear of Egypt and countries worst hit by the eurozone crisis, according to the 2013 World Happiness Report released Monday by Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden are the world's happiest countries, according to the survey of 156 countries. Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Benin and Togo -- all nations in Sub-Saharan Africa -- are the least satisfied with their lives, the report said.

The United States came in at number 17 in the world in terms of overall happiness, but it still lags behind Canada (6), Australia (10), Israel (11) the United Arab Emirates (14) and Mexico (16), according to the Earth Institute.

The report ranks the United Kingdom as the 22nd happiest country in the world. Other major nations included Germany (26), Japan (43), Russia (68) and China (93).

Life's ups and downs

The global survey was conducted between 2010 and 2012 and follows the Earth Institute's first rankings released last year. While "the world has become a slightly happier and more generous place over the past five years," economic and political upheavals have resulted in greatly reduced levels of well being for some nations, the report said.

Rankings for Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain fell dramatically because of the impact of the eurozone crisis, while Egypt, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia registered large falls in the wake of recent political and civil turmoil.

Egypt had the greatest fall in happiness levels. On a scale of 1 to 10 -- with 10 rated as happiest -- Egypt averaged 4.3 in 2012, compared to 5.4 in 2007.

"We expect, and find, that these losses are far greater than would follow simply from lower incomes," the report said, noting that the greatest single factor reducing happiness levels in these countries was a reduction in people's perceived "freedom to make key life choices."

Angola, Zimbabwe and Albania experienced the largest increases across all the countries surveyed.

"On a regional basis, by far the largest gains in life evaluations in terms of the prevalence and size of the increases have been in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Sub-Saharan Africa", the report said. Reduced levels of corruption also contributed to the rise.

Governments seeking to improve the happiness of their populations should spend a higher proportion of their health budgets on mental illness, which is the single biggest "determinant of misery" in countries assessed, the study authors said.

"People can be unhappy for many reasons -- from poverty to unemployment to family breakdown to physical illness," the report said. "But in any particular society, chronic mental illness is a highly influential cause of misery.

"If we want a happier world, we need a completely new deal on mental health."

Gross National Happiness

The 2013 World Happiness Report comes on the back of a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers to reduce their emphasis on achieving economic growth and focus on policies that can improve people's overall well-being.

An idea first proposed in 1972 by Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the concept of "happiness economics" has now gained traction in many countries across the world, including the UK, Germany and South Korea. The UN first encouraged member countries to measure and use the happiness of their people to guide public policies in July 2011.

"It is important to balance economic measures of societal progress with measures of subjective well-being to ensure that economic progress leads to broad improvements across life domains, not just greater economic capacity," the report said.

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Western nations with social safety net happier

(CNN) -- The battle in Washington over the budget is not mere partisan squabbling. What we are debating is the perennial argument between right and left: Do we as a society prefer to leave the well-being of our people to the indifference of the market economy, or do we believe that government also has an important role to play?

We are accustomed to thinking of the argument between left and right as an ideological or philosophical debate, so it has no "correct" answer. But there is an answer: We are entirely capable of knowing what policies best contribute to people leading positive and rewarding lives.

In recent decades, social scientists have been studying human happiness in the same way we study any other human attribute. Vast new multidisciplinary research has emerged around the proposition that it is possible to empirically measure the extent to which people view their lives as satisfying.

So what conditions best promote more rewarding lives?

The answer is simple and unequivocal: Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net, or, more generally, countries whose governments "tax and spend" at higher rates, reflecting the greater range of services and protections offered by the state. (These findings come from analysis of data from the World Values Surveys for the 21 Western industrial democracies from 1981 to 2007 for my book "The Political Economy of Human Happiness." Similar findings have been reported in peer-reviewed journals like "Social Research" and the "Social Indicators Research.")

The relationship could not be stronger or clearer: However much it may pain conservatives to hear it, the "nanny state," as they disparagingly call it, works. Across the Western world, the quality of human life increases as the size of the state increases. It turns out that having a "nanny" makes life better for people. This is borne out by the U.N. 2013 "World Happiness Report," which found Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden the top five happiest nations.

Conservatives may be equally troubled to learn that labor unions have a similar effect. Not only are workers who belong to unions happier, but the overall rate of happiness for everyone -- members and nonmembers -- increases dramatically as the percentage of workers who belong to unions grows, reflecting the louder political voice that organization gives to ordinary citizens.

All this remains true when controlling for the many other things that might also affect quality of life, such as income, age, gender, marital status, or their country's culture, history, or level of economic development. Critically, "big government" and labor unions also promote happiness not merely for those toward the bottom or middle of the income distribution, but for everyone, rich and poor, men and women, conservatives and liberals.

would be with Ted Cruz'

The same pattern emerges when looking at our states. People who live in states with higher welfare spending, more organized labor, more liberal state governments, more regulation of business, and a greater recent history of control by the Democratic Party, are all more satisfied with their lives, regardless of income, and again when controlling for other factors that are likely to affect well-being.

The reasons the progressive agenda promotes happiness are complex, but stated simply, the more we supplement the cold efficiency of the market with interventions that reduce poverty, insecurity, and inequality, the more we improve quality of life for everyone.

As poet and novelist Wendell Berry observed, "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." It takes no great insight to see that a world with less insecurity and less poverty, which is to say, a world more governed by justice and mercy, is one that people of all social classes will find more satisfying.

Many benefit directly from social programs or the representation of their interests by unions; others worry less than they otherwise might because they know these institutions exist when needed; and everyone benefits indirectly by living in a society which is relatively free of social pathologies, such as the higher rates of violent crime, that come with the poverty, inequality and insecurity that liberal policies help ameliorate.

The data demonstrate that this is not merely softhearted wishful thinking. Whatever else unions and liberal public policies might do, they help make the world a better place to the extent that we believe human happiness is the appropriate metric to measure such judgments.

That in turn suggests the most intellectually compelling strategy available to progressives in the battle for public opinion: Traditional New Deal policies are precisely those that best allow citizens to pursue the happiness that the founders of our republic so famously argued to be the final justification for the American experiment.

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