Countries ranked by Happiness

No! We are Not No. 1

(In this article, I am using the word “American” to imply a citizen of the USA. Of course that is not fully correct and I apologize to my Canadian and Hispanic readers, who justifiably feel that the word “America” is the name of two continents and not just one country. But this is addressed to those citizens of the USA who are less aware of what goes on in the rest of the world and so I am using the term in the colloquial sense as used by chauvinistic citizens of the USA).

Americans are brought up to believe the propaganda that we are No. 1. Most Americans assume that means we are the best at almost everything. Of course most Americans have spent very little time outside of the USA, have read little history outside of US History and speak only one language (although that is beginning to change). America is number one in several areas. We spend the more on the military than any other country. America is also No. 1 in spending on healthcare, although we are way down the list as to the quality of healthcare experienced by the majority of residents living in the USA. Many Americans believe they live in the “freest country in the world.” While that was very true for whites in the USA in 1800, it certainly is not true in 2020.

When it comes to absolute freedom (lack of constraint by laws) Iceland is number one and Norway a close second. Of course small countries with smaller populations need less regulations, or simpler regulations. Furthermore, American corporations have managed to get a lot of laws and regulations on the books to make it harder for smaller competitors, or to allow them to operate in a jurisdiction while still polluting.  Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians do not allow this stifling of capitalism or intrusion on the health of its citizens for the sake of profit.

Freedom of expression is greater in the US than Germany, but this is not the case in The Netherlands or the Scandinavian Countries. Minutiae in copyright and intellectual property law in the US is far more restrictive than that found in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or even Singapore.

People who live in a country that allows freedom of thought, reasonable compensation for work, inexpensive education and healthcare, low cost childcare and a secure retirement are happier. Reasonable work/life balance and paid sick leave, vacation and some regulations on commodities in short supply, such that inflation does not prevent one from getting the essentials of life also leads to more happiness. (This last item is a problem for New Zealand, even though it ranks very high in all other areas). People prefer a very open government that has open accounting systems that make it easy for all citizens to see how their taxes are being spent and whether they are getting their money’s worth for what they pay.  On this issue Denmark is number one, with Norway a close second and why these countries usually rank in the top three on the annual “Happiness Index.”

Outside the US, most people pay much higher taxes on gasoline. However, if you have driven a German Autobahn, you appreciate what higher quality roads provide. Find a pothole in Copenhagen, even after a harsh winter-unlikely. Ride the trains in Western Europe and experience luxury and dependability that make a farce out of Amtrak. It’s so comfortable, that for long trips, Europeans put their car on the train.

In the USA the education system is fragmented and most children do not get a good education. Then if you want your children to go to college, you will need to save for years and even then, most graduates need nearly 20 years to pay off the debt. Finland has the finest education system in the world and they pay teachers nearly as much as physicians. Competition to get a teaching certificate is as stiff as getting into medical school. The Canadian education system is better than the US, but still fragmented. Northern European students do better on standardized knowledge tests at the end of eighth grade than most US students do after two years of college.

In order to pay for quality education and quality healthcare (although about 1/3 the cost of US healthcare, despite the higher quality), these programs are funded by the government and therefore Europeans pay more in taxes. However, those taxes are much less than what US residents pay for education and healthcare, so it is cheaper to live in Europe, if you have a decent education and therefore a good job; but because of denser population, you must also be willing to live in a smaller space and spend your money more on experiences (restaurants, theater, museums, travel) than on “Things.”

The World Happiness Report is produced annually:

Of course 2020 is a unique year, but the data was mostly gathered in 2019.

This is a very well documented and researched study that has held up to intense scrutiny for eight years. The research is headed by Columbia with most of the assistance coming from the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Vancouver, so you would think it was North American centric, but the unbiased results are more northern European centric. Data is collected and collated by Gallup which also assists in validation.

A lot of factors go into happiness, including lack of stress and overall sense of security. The factors involved are complex, but easy to understand, if you read the entire report.


Because the Nordic countries have come out on top for eight years, there is now an entire chapter on Nordic Exceptionalism. Many will say these are homogenous countries, but anyone who has visited in the last five years knows this is not the case. One key here is that they are able to support both the better and less well off, so you don’t have to live with homelessness or litter. A sense of cooperative ownership means that hiking trails are well maintained and free of excrement (like in the US) and beaches are free of debris and rubbish. Cigarette butts seldom are seen on the sidewalk.

Norway and Iceland were numbers 1 and 3 in past years, but have dropped to 4 & 5, not because the citizens are less happy, but three other countries moved up as their residents became more happy.

  1.  Finland
  2. Denmark
  3. Switzerland
  4. Iceland
  5. Norway
  6. Netherlands
  7. Sweden
  8. New Zealand
  9. Austria
  10. Luxembourg
  11. Canada
  12.  Australia
  13. UK
  14. Israel (yes, including the Palistinian residents of Israel-separate from the Palestinian Territories)
  15. Costa Rica (you don’t have to be a wealthy country to have happy citizens, just safer than your neighbors)
  16. Ireland
  17. Germany
  18. USA
  19. Czech Republic
  20. Belgium


With so many countries ranked above the US, why aren’t Americans fleeing to other countries? For most Americans it is a lack of knowledge about the benefits of these other countries.  These countries are more “socialist” than the US, and for many Americans, “socialism” is a pejorative term. There is a lot of confusion by Americans re communism, as practiced in The Peoples Republic of China, North Korea, the former USSR, Cuba and Venezuela; vs “socialism” which actually underpins a lot of the US (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, AFDC, CHIPS, the VA system and to a large extend the Federal Employment Regulations) with “socialism” as practiced in 18 of the other 19 countries in the list above, especially the Nordic Countries. (And even Costa Rico has many elements of “socialism”). These counties still are capitalist and in fact Norway and Iceland have a much freer capitalistic market than the US.

The other factor for many Americans is that to be successful in any of these other countries, you are expected to be fluent in two languages (3 in Switzerland, but 4 if you want a good position). So when educated Americans look to flee, English speaking countries are their first choice. There are a few physicians who started in Klamath Falls, Oregon and then moved to Canada, two have moved to Australia, but we have lost more to New Zealand than any single state except California.

The other reason many Americans who would like to move to another country do not, is they have too  many family ties here in the US. While still in training, I was offered a position in Graz, Austria where I could finish and then get an academic post. Elderly parents for both of us and children, who did not speak German and therefore would attend college in the USA, prevented my taking the position. I later developed a very complicated cancer and over the years the medical costs not covered by insurance have devastated my retirement savings. In retrospect, I should have taken the position, or joined several of my colleagues in New Zealand.

If you wish to live in Switzerland as a noncitizen, you must be independently wealthy, yet it is unlikely you will be allowed to be a citizen and be able to participate in all the social benefits (although health insurance for foreign residents is very inexpensive and covers nearly everything with much higher quality than most US hospitals).

My niece went to Germany to get her graduate degree, but to be hired in an EU country, requires the hiring company to demonstrate that you are more qualified than any EU applicants.  This is a high bar. Without employment, you cannot remain more than 90 days in an EU country, unless you make a very substantial investment in companies based in the EU. That is nearly an impossible hurdle for 99.9% of young Americans.

Likewise, except for short student exchanges or internships, New Zealand and Australia require that before you can get a visa allowing you to remain in the country and eventually apply for citizenship, you must have a secure job.

Iceland and Norway are not part of the EU, so competing for a position there is much easier. Many Americans have moved to Iceland and a few will probably remain, but to be eligible for all the benefits, you must become a citizen and that is no easy task, not to mention, Icelandic can be challenging to learn (but English fluency is required to first get a job and many young Poles are in Iceland trying to improve their English so they can get a good paying job back in the EU-Western Europe, they and their Serbian colleagues want out of Eastern Europe. High level jobs in Norway are very competitive. However, there are great opportunities for skilled laborers in Norway and some Americans have taken up such positions, such as cabinet making, plumbing and road construction. Jobs on the oil platforms and fishing fleets have some Americans, but these are intrepid hard workers that don’t mind cold, wet winter outdoor work. Icelandic fishing boats are also looking for workers.

Many Americans have married Europeans, including Scandinavians. Most end up moving to the US, as family ties are stronger and getting work for both can be easier in the US. The exception is Israel, where many Americans have moved with their spouse, and it is not too difficult for an American to move there with the right connections and skills. Now with COVID-19, many of these couples are considering moving back to Europe, but that is not easy. Currently Americans are prohibited from traveling to almost all countries of in the world.

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