Denmark, New Zealand, Canada Rank Highest in Wellbeing

by Nicole Naurath

United States, Venezuela, and Brazil also in the top 10

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Gallup polling in more than 130 countries finds that people in Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada report the highest wellbeing in the world. The United States, Australia, Venezuela, and Brazil are among the countries that score nearly as high, but no country in mainland Asia or Africa makes the top 10.

Gallup's Well-Being Index reflects a broad view of the wellbeing concept and is made up of six questions that ask respondents to evaluate their overall lives and to comment on experiences during a specific time:

  • Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.
    • If the top step is 10 and the bottom step is 0, on which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?
    • Just your best guess, on which step do you think you will stand on in the future, say 5 years from now?
  • Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
  • Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  • Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?
  • Did you experience the following feelings during a lot of the day yesterday? Enjoyment

Answers to these experience and evaluative questions offer scholars a more representative view of wellbeing than traditional economic and social indicators such as GDP, poverty rates, healthcare expenditures, and literacy rates. Together, they provide a comprehensive tool to measure and track the progress toward improving the wellbeing of citizens and societies around the world.

Having collected these subjective self-reported data from population samples around the world, Gallup Poll researchers and analysts calculated Well-Being Index scores for 130 countries. The countries with the highest scores are almost exclusively high per-capita GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) countries, and can be found in Europe, North and South America, and Oceania.

The Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale Questions

According to a presentation given at the 2007 Global Wellbeing Forum by Ed Diener, Ph.D., a leading wellbeing researcher from the University of Illinois and a Gallup Senior Scientist, the relationship between GDP and subjective wellbeing is for the most part to be expected. Diener's work shows that both parts of the Well-Being Index correlate with GDP, although the evaluative or "ladder" questions have a stronger relationship than the experience or affect questions.

Brazil and Venezuela are the exceptions. While the other countries mentioned have a per capita GDP (PPP) of $26,200 or greater, Brazil and Venezuela are much lower, at $8,800 and $7,200, respectively. Brazil and Venezuela also show the most momentum for a better future on the ladder questions. In both nations, respondents on average say they currently stand on rung 7, and both predict they will move to rung 9 in the next five years. In these countries, then, momentum for the future is greater than that of all the other countries in the top 10.

The Affect Questions

The countries with the most momentum on the ladder are also the most likely to say they learned or did something interesting the day before taking the survey. Venezuela (77%), New Zealand (71%), Ireland (67%), Brazil (67%), and the United States (65%) post more positive responses to this question than the Northern and Western European countries of Finland (59%), Denmark (58%), Switzerland (57%), and Sweden (53%). In Canada, where momentum for the future is not as great, 68% say they learned or did something interesting.

When asked if they smiled or laughed a lot the day prior to the survey, respondents in most Northern and Western European countries placed at the lower end of the list (ranging from 71% to 76%). This despite the fact that, on average, respondents in Denmark and Finland see themselves on a higher step of the ladder in their present lives than do respondents in the other countries. Populations from New Zealand (84%), Brazil (83%), and Venezuela (81%) -- the countries with the lowest GDP (PPP) per capita among the high wellbeing countries -- are the most likely to say they smiled or laughed; Ireland (86%), which has the second-highest GDP per capita among the group, is the lone exception.

The people of Denmark are most likely to report having experienced enjoyment the day prior to the survey (91%), while people in nearby Finland are less likely by 20 percentage points to say the same thing. People in the United States (84%), Venezuela (81%), and Brazil (80%), while exhibiting high momentum for the future and the greatest propensity to have learned or done something interesting, fall below the median response (88%) for enjoyment.

All respondents from the high subjective wellbeing countries claim to have been respected throughout the entire day before the survey at about the same rate. Sweden is on the high end (94%) and the United States on the low end (88%), but with a margin of error of ±3 percentage points, there is no statistically significant difference between the countries.

Diener also finds that GDP growth has a negative correlation with the affect questions, meaning that for countries with higher GDP growth rates, it can be expected that positive responses to the affect questions will be lower. Although this is true for New Zealand, Canada, and Australia -- countries with greater positivity on the affect questions and relatively low GDP growth rates of less than 3% in 2006 -- Venezuela and Ireland deviate in some cases. These two countries top the list of GDP growth rates for 2006, with 10.3% in Venezuela and 5.7% in Ireland, yet also rank among the top when their residents are asked if they smiled or laughed a lot or learned or did something interesting the day before the survey.

Diener hypothesizes that material conditions and social relationships help to predict how one will respond to the life ladder and affect questions. Material conditions, such as GDP, having basic needs fulfilled, and longevity are more predictive of one's position on the ladder questions, while social relationships such as control of corruption, law and order, and being able to count on someone when in need best predict the affect questions. For the most part, these material and social conditions are met in the high wellbeing countries.

Survey Methods

Results from the Gallup World Poll are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted throughout 2005 and 2006. Randomly selected sample sizes typically number 1,000 residents, aged 15 and older, in the countries polled. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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