The World Happiness Report 2018, ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants. This year, Singapore is ranked 34th, a drop from 2017’s ranking of 26th.
Overall rankings of country happiness are based on the pooled results from Gallup World Poll surveys from 2015-2017, and show both change and stability.
All the top countries tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. Among the top countries, differences are small enough that that year-to-year changes in the rankings are to be expected.
The ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Finland is at the top of both rankings in this report, with the happiest immigrants, and the happiest population in general.
The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live, illustrating a general pattern of convergence. Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live.
Immigrant happiness, like that of the locally born, depends on a range of features of the social fabric, extending far beyond the higher incomes traditionally thought to inspire and reward migration. The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.
Taiwan ranks 26, the only area in Asia ranked above Singapore. Meanwhile, Malaysia is ranked 35th.
The report was produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and edited by three economists, which are Sachs, the network’s director and a professor at Columbia University, John F. Helliwell, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and Richard Layard, a director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance.
The research is based on Gallup International surveys conducted from 2015 to 2017, in which thousands of respondents were asked to imagine a ladder with steps numbered 0 to 10 and to say which step they felt they stood on, a ranking known as the Cantril Scale.
Mr Sachs explained why one country is happier than another is a dicey business, however, the report cites six significant factors, which are gross domestic product per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels. He also noted that the happiest countries have very different political philosophies from the US’.
He said that most of the top 10 are social democracies, which “believe that what makes people happy is solid social support systems, good public services, and even paying a significant amount in taxes for that.”
The report also focused heavily on how migration affects happiness. Most notably, it found that the happiness of a country’s immigrants is almost identical to that of its population at large – indicating, Mr Helliwell said in an interview, that “people essentially adjust to the average happiness level of the country they’re moving to”.
“The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live. Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live,” the report said.
In conclusion, the report stated that there are large gaps in happiness between countries, and these will continue to create major pressures to migrate. Some of those who migrate between countries will benefit and others will lose. In general, those who move to happier countries than their own will gain in happiness, while those who move to unhappier countries will tend to lose.
Those left behind will not on average lose, although once again there will be gainers and losers. Immigration will continue to pose both opportunities and costs for those who move, for those who remain behind, and for natives of the immigrant receiving countries.
Where immigrants are welcome and where they integrate well, immigration works best. A more tolerant attitude in the host country will prove best for migrants and for the original residents. But there are clearly limits to the annual flows which can be accommodated without damage to the social fabric that provides the very basis of the country’s attraction to immigrants.
One obvious solution, which has no upper limit, is to raise the happiness of people in the sending countries – perhaps by the traditional means of foreign aid and better access to rich-country markets, but more importantly by helping them to grow their own levels of trust, and institutions of the sort that make possible better lives in the happier countries.