Denmark Is Happiest Country, U.S. Misses Top 10

A new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has found that Danish people are the happiest among those in the 40 countries that were studied. Depending on the happiness scale used, Americans rank somewhere between No. 12 and No. 19 in the results.

In the "How's Life?" initiative, the results of which were published online Oct. 12, the OECD used data from 2010 Gallup world polls to calculate the happiness and well-being of people in 40 different countries, and investigated which factors have the strongest influence on people's happiness.

On a scale of 0 to 10, citizens of Denmark rated their life satisfaction at 7.8, on average. Citizens of Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, The Netherlands, Australia, Israel and Finland were next most satisfied, followed by people in Ireland, Austria, and the United States, where people rated their life satisfaction at 7.2. Chinese and Hungarian people reported the lowest overall life satisfaction, both at 4.7.

When asked the question "How are you feeling today?" Danes again came in at the top, with approximately 88 percent responding that they felt positive emotions. On this scale, Americans ranked No. 19, with about 83 percent feeling positive. [Click for full results]

Overall, the OECD report found that well-being has increased on average over the past fifteen years. People are richer and more likely to be employed; they enjoy better housing conditions and are exposed to lower air pollution; they live longer and are more educated; they are also exposed to fewer crimes.

Within countries, however, the report found that happiness levels vary widely. "Some groups of the population, particularly less educated and low-income people, tend to fare systematically worse in all dimensions of well-being considered in this report," the OECD stated. "For instance, they live shorter lives and report greater health problems; their children obtain worse school results; they participate less in political activities; they can rely on lower social networks in case of needs; they are more exposed to crime and pollution; they tend to be less satisfied with their life as a whole than more educated and higher-income people."

The OECD also investigated which life factors have the biggest impact on well-being. The group polled more than half a million people from around the world in an online survey, and then compared their stated happiness and life satisfaction with other attributes, such as their employment status and social and political engagement. First and foremost, the researchers found that "having a job is an essential element of well-being. Good jobs provide earnings, but also shape personal identity and opportunities for social relationships," the OECD stated in a press release.

The survey also revealed that shorter commutes, access to green space, a clean environment, spending time with friends and family, good health and engaging in political activity (such as signing petitions and contacting representatives) all correlate directly to people's feelings of happiness, and have a larger impact than people's income. [Want to Be Happy? Stop Trying]

According to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, the results of the "How's Life?" report suggest that governments should focus on goals other than economic progress. "Some may wonder whether it is still opportune to talk about well-being, rather than just focusing on the economic growth needed to get our countries out of this crisis," Gurría said. "I strongly believe that … we have to consider a broader picture in our policymaking, because a 'growth as usual' approach is simply not enough. In the current difficult political context, it is of utmost importance to define core objectives besides level of income, such as improving our citizens' well-being, ensuring access to opportunities and preserving our social and natural environment."

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow us on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover.