The U.S. Declaration of Independence inscribed as a fundamental right "the pursuit of happiness," but Norway has taken that goal most to heart.
The Scandinavian nation of 5 million, known for its spectacular fjords, reindeer and "Midnight Sun," ranks No. 1 among 155 countries rated for happiness in a United Nations report out Monday.
It helps that Norway, which moved up from fourth place last year to dethrone Denmark, has oil wealth. That boosted the per person annual income, as measured by economic output, to more than $100,000 — nearly double that of the United States. It also helps that it has a low unemployment rate slightly below the U.S. (4.7%) and low income inequality — the gap between the richest and poor citizens is one-third as large as that in the U.S.
A cold climate also seems to correlate with happiness: The top seven countries all are in northern locations: Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands and Canada, according to the ranking in the fifth annual World Happiness Report.
"By choosing to produce oil deliberately and investing the proceeds for the benefit of future generations, Norway has protected itself from the volatile ups and downs of many other oil-rich economies," said John Helliwell, one of the authors of the report.
Countries that achieved positive results have "high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance," said Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia. "All of these are found in Norway, as well as in the other top countries."
Happiness in the United States appears to be declining. Rattled by a slow economic recovery and deeply partisan political landscape, the U.S. dropped down one spot from last year to the 14th happiest in the world. Decreased social support and increased corruption are two of the main causes, according to the report. Americans, however, are happier than European counterparts Germany (16th), the United Kingdom (19th) and France (31st).
The report, published by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, shows that while economic variables matter, factors such as healthy years of life expectancy, freedom, social support, trust and generosity do, too.
The five lowest ranked were Central African Republic, Burundi, Tanzania, Syria and Rwanda.
"Countries at the bottom end of the rankings typically have low values of all six of the key variables — income, health, social support, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption," Helliwell said. "They also include countries afflicted by internal and external conflicts or still trying to recover from past economic, political and civil disruptions."
Among the report's other findings:
• In richer countries, the biggest source of unhappiness is mental illness.
• Income differences matter more in poorer countries.
Work plays a key role, as unemployment causes a big drop in happiness.
8. New Zealand
Least happy countries:
1. Central African Republic
9. South Sudan