Happiness, Our Most Valued Attribute

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Happiness, Our Most Valued Attribute

The United Nations recently released its World Happiness Report 2015.1 It’s the latest comprehensive assessment of world happiness and its underlying drivers.

This work summarizes the “geography of happiness” by means of a map using ten different colors to show how average 2012-2014 life evaluations differ across the world. Average life evaluations, where zero represents the worst possible life and ten the best possible, range from an average above 7.5 at the top of the rankings to below 3 at the bottom. A difference of four points in average life evaluations separates the ten happiest countries from the ten least happy countries.

Three-quarters of the differences among countries, and also among regions, are accounted for by differences in six key variables, each of which digs into a different aspect of life. The six factors are:

  1. GDP per capita adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity
  2. Healthy years of life expectancy
  3. Social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble)
  4. Trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business)
  5. Perceived freedom to make life decisions
  6. Generosity (as measured by recent donations, adjusted for differences in income)

Differences in social support, incomes, and healthy life expectancy are the three most important factors, with their relative importance depending on the comparison group chosen.

As you would expect, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and Switzerland are at the top. They are joined by Israel, Austria, and Costa Rica. The United States is the only country with a population over 125 million in the top tier.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find the continent of Africa.

Obviously, happiness is a condition of the mind, which is merely influenced by the six external factors we just discussed. Brain research indicates that there are four neural bases for happiness:

  1. Sustained positive emotion
  2. Recovery from negative emotion
  3. Empathy, altruism, and pro-social behavior
  4. Mind-wandering, mindfulness, and “affective stickiness” (also known as “emotion-captured attention”)

A growing body of evidence supports the importance of these four neural constituents, which are linked to emotions and life evaluations in different ways...

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