Science Tracks the Good Life
It turns out the Bluebird of Happiness roosts in Denmark
Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2000


The "happiest place on Earth" isn't Disneyland: It's Denmark.

An emerging social science -- happiness research -- is identifying the happiest and unhappiest regions in the United States and around the world. It's also shattering stereotypes and folk beliefs about happiness: who's got it, who doesn't, and how to get it for yourself.

The Chronicle recently asked a leading happiness researcher -- psychologist Michael Hagerty, a professor of management at the University of California at Davis -- to analyze several decades of social surveys conducted by scholars around the globe.

The surveys had one question in common: How happy are you? They covered hundreds of thousands of people in more than 20 nations. Hagerty's analysis has led him to some fascinating, and occasionally counter-intuitive, conclusions:

-- Despite their reputation as carefree surfer dudes and beach babes, Californians and other inhabitants of the West Coast are not, on the whole, happier than the average American.

-- Despite all those European films depicting inhabitants of northern Europe as brooding depressives, the world's happiest nations are Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg.

-- Despite all those Federico Fellini films in which everyone is happily yakking, making love and tossing pasta, Italians are the third-most-miserable people on Earth.

The study of happiness isn't new: It's been a branch of social science research for at least a half-century.

However, perhaps fearing ridicule, early scholars in the field avoided calling their subject "happiness." Although the word "happiness" is ennobled in the Declaration of Independence, it sounds trite, even shallow to some modern ears.

Instead, early happiness researchers said they were studying "life satisfaction" or "quality of life," which are neutral-sounding terms less likely to spark guffaws inside campus psychology or sociology departments.

Now, though, the word "happiness" is coming out of the closet.

This summer, Kluwer Academic, a respected scholarly publishing house in Europe, unveiled a new research publication: The Journal of Happiness Studies, edited by sociology professor Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

Its very first issue announced a number of counter-intuitive findings, among them: "Above the poverty level, more money does not add much to happiness." (So much for Gloria Vanderbilt's declaration that, "People who say money can't buy happiness don't know where to shop.")

Happiness studies may not meet the rigorous standards of the hard sciences. Still, social scientists in this growing field have developed sophisticated surveys for interviewing people to learn about their mental states, says Hagerty, the UC Davis psychologist.

According to surveys, he notes, the most important sources of personal happiness are:

-- Close ties to friends and family;

-- Wide political freedom;

-- High income, and

-- A narrow gap between rich and poor.

"Those four factors have come across consistently, in national and international surveys over the last 30 years," says Hagerty, who is also a fellow in the International Society for Quality of Life Studies based in Blacksburg, Va.

According to his analysis, the United States is the fifth-happiest nation, a fact that baffles Hagerty. "It's amazing that the U.S. is that high," he says. "For the most part, the top-rated countries are small and homogeneous."

Could it have something to do with the high levels of happiness reported in rural parts of the United States? Hagerty points out that rural states -- "the heartland," in his words -- are consistently the happiest: "There's not a lot of migration out. Families stay stable."

The happiest states are what Hagerty calls "the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) region" -- Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.

That finding might startle those who still cling to old stereotypes about those states as home to moonshine operators and Ku Klux Klansmen. It certainly surprised Hagerty, considering that "traditionally, they've been an economically depressed region."

The second-happiest region is also mostly rural: the "west north central" states of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Despite their dour reputation in popular culture -- recall the brooding Scandinavian immigrants of radio storyteller Garrison Keillor's fictional Midwestern village, Lake Wobegon -- this region fell only 0.02 points short of tying the "TVA region" for happiest place in America.

By contrast, the data for the Pacific states clash with popular stereotypes.

Many inhabitants of the West Coast like to think of themselves as the cheerful antithesis of stereotypically materialistic, high-strung Easterners --

say, as sun-loving Gidgets, or as nature-revering John Muirs.

Yet the average happiness rating for California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii is precisely the same -- 7.29 on a 10-point scale -- as the U.S. average.

At first, Hagerty admits, "that surprised me." But the more he thought about it, the finding didn't seem quite so unusual. Here's why: Social scientists, he explains, have long noted a close correlation between one's happiness and the richness of one's personal relationships.

"I think Californians consider individual freedom and individual happiness quite important. But they've often sacrificed friends and family in order to move here from someplace else," Hagerty says.

When they arrive here, they find themselves in a culture full of people like themselves -- free spirits for whom it's less important to establish close personal ties than to fulfill individual goals by launching a dot-com, or finding one's inner child, or catching the perfect wave, or whatever.

"I'm from Galesburg, a little town near Peoria, Ill." notes Hagerty, 50. "When I moved here in 1979, I had to form new friends and family. And in my experience, while it's easier to make friends here than in, say, Boston or New York, it's very difficult to make good friends."

At a global level, happiness research has led to some equally fascinating conclusions, some of which reinforce popular stereotypes and some of which shatter them.

The happiest countries, Hagerty finds, tend to have relatively small populations and to be situated in northern Europe. Denmark ranks far and away as the happiest nation on Earth, with a rating of 7.96 on a 10-point scale.

Why the huge international variation in happiness levels? An old-fashioned explanation -- climate variations -- won't cut it.

"The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway are overcast quite a lot, yet they're the happiest nations in the data," Hagerty points out. "The unhappiest are Portugal, Greece and Italy, which are sunny."

Socioeconomic explanations tend to be more persuasive: Denmark has "very high income and they're small and homogeneous. People there have a similar world view and a similar religion, so that it's easier for them to communicate and to understand each other's motives," Hagerty says. "They don't have race problems, they don't have crime problems, and they have political freedom."

Hagerty also suspects a correlation between the happiness of Northern European nations and their history of advanced social welfare systems. Such systems tend to smooth out income differences between rich and poor -- differences that, according to many different social surveys, rank among the major causes of social misery.

The findings have potential implications for social policy, Hagerty notes. For one thing, they suggest Americans could be even happier if they expanded social services. "Compared to European countries, we offer a lot fewer social services that enrich family life."

Japan and South Korea's low ratings are striking, Hagerty says, considering their huge increase in income and other social improvements in recent decades. The reason seems clear, though: Data indicate that in Asian cultures, people readily acknowledge their personal happiness is less important to them than "family prosperity and honor," he says.

Hagerty warns Chronicle readers not to take his chart too seriously. It is, after all, just a statistical overview, one that inevitably blurs dramatic variations in happiness from individual to individual, and from region to region.

If you're miserable about traffic and noise and high rents in the Bay Area, don't assume that you'll instantly become happy by migrating someplace else.

"Don't jump and move to Denmark in order to be happy," Hagerty cautions. "According to our research, the most important thing you can do to be happy is to develop good ties with friends and family -- and you can do that wherever you are, right now."

MEASURING WORLD HAPPPINESS: FILMS VS. REAL LIFE The following chart lists average reported levels of happiness around the world. Respondents rated their personal levels of "happiness," "life satisfaction" or comparable states of well-being on a 10-point scale. The number 10 corresponds to "most happy." As the chart illustrates, levels of happiness in certain nations can be strongly at odds with the popular stereotypes about those nations as reflected in famous motion pictures.

E-mail Keay Davidson at

   The films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman ("The Seventh Seal") and other 
European filmmakers have persuaded Americans that –inhabitants of Northern 
Europe tend to be dour and angst-–ridden. In fact, four nations of upper 
Europe - Denmark, –the Netherlands, Norway –and Luxembourg - rank –among the 
world's happiest. Films of the late Italian director Federico Fellini
("8 1/2"  and "Amarcord") 
depicted his countrymen as lusty, ebullient people. This 
contradicts Italy's ranking as the third-unhappiest nation on the list. Ditto 
for the unhappiest nation listed, Greece, which many American filmgoers 
associate with the life-loving peasant played by Anthony Quinn in "Zorba the 
----------------------------------------------HAPPINESS AND POLITICS
   Political events can affect individual happiness, as suggested by this 
chart showing how Germans' sense of "life satisfaction" fluctuated over two 
decades. Notice the sharp spike upward after the reunion of West and East 
Germany, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989..
CHART (2):
   1980        6.5
   Fall of the Berlin Wall
   1990        7.0.
Source: Prof. Michael Hagerty, University of California at Davis and 

Eurobarometer Survey/European Commission
    -- The chart is based on calculations prepared for The Chronicle by Prof. e 
University of California at Davis. He based his calculations on data compiled 
over many years by researchers at the following surveys:-- U.S. ratings are based on interviews with 23,724 respondents since 1980, 
conducted by researchers with the General Social Survey of the National 
Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.-- European ratings are based on more than 100,000 interviews since 1975, 
conducted by researchers with the Eurobarometer Survey, which is sponsored by 
the European Commission's Directorate of Education and Culture.-- Ratings from other nations are based on interviews in the World Values 
Survey and other databases archived at the University of Michigan's Survey 
Research Center.
   Chronicle Graphic.CHART (3)
Many think of Californias as sunny folk, as stereotyped by the beach movie 
"Gidget" (1959). In fact, Pacific Coast residents' average happiness level is 
the same as the U.S. as a whole -- 
7.29 on a 10-point scale.

South Central                    7.39
W. North Central                 7.37
New England                      7.36
Mountain                         7.35
South Atlantic Coast             7.33
Pacific Coast                    7.29
E. North Central                 7.27
W. South Central                 7.25
Mid Atlantic Coast               7.16

EC:Chronicle Graphic