KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Today is the International Day of Happiness. The United Nations had an event to mark the occasion, and it released the 2017 World Happiness report. Now, the idea of ranking countries by their levels of happiness might seem a bit weird. Surely there are always some people who are miserable while others are thriving. NPR's Allison Aubrey investigates.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Every year, researchers ask people in 155 countries to evaluate their lives. They ask a range of questions aimed at understanding key factors that contribute to a happy life. For example...
JOHN HELLIWELL: It's a simple question - yes or no. In times of trouble, do you have family or friends to count on?
AUBREY: He says the other questions look at health, education, income, as well as levels of freedom and trust in government. And who comes out on top?
HELLIWELL: The top country this year is Norway, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland.
AUBREY: So what makes a country happy? I was curious, so I made a phone call.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Norwegian Embassy. Good afternoon.
AUBREY: I was put through to Jon Oyslebo. He's the minister of cultural affairs. And why does he think Norwegians top the list?
JON OYSLEBO: I'm quite sure that access to free higher education, access to high-quality health services would be part of it.
AUBREY: There's also generous social support programs. For instance, new parents are entitled to almost a year of leave with pay. And the physical surroundings are beautiful, too.
OYSLEBO: Space, fresh air (laughter). I think Norwegians have many, many reasons to be satisfied.
AUBREY: Another factor of course is the economy. Overall, Norway is a pretty wealthy country in part due to oil. But even though oil prices have declined, Norwegians' level of happiness has risen.
OYSLEBO: Absolutely there is more to it than money.
AUBREY: At a time when income inequality has expanded in many countries, Norway has no big gap between rich and poor. And there's no big gender gap either.
TAL BEN-SHAHAR: I think the interesting thing about the happiness index is what we can learn from it and, more importantly, what we can apply.
AUBREY: That's Tal Ben-Shahar. For years he taught a course on the science of happiness at Harvard. This year, the U.S. is ranked 14th on the global happiness index, slipping one spot from last year. Ben-Shahar says this isn't a big deal. After all, the survey relies on blunt measures. But he says the divisiveness created by our political climate seemed to play a role.
BEN-SHAHAR: There is less trust today in the political system in the United States. There is distrust among people because - a feeling of us versus them.
AUBREY: He says there's lots of science to show that the loss of trust can erode people's sense of well-being.
BEN-SHAHAR: One of the most important determinants of happiness is trust.
AUBREY: And without a sense of shared values, it can be a challenge to rebuild that trust. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) It might seem crazy what I'm about to say. Sunshine - she's here. You can take a break. I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space - with the air like I don't care, baby, by the way because I'm happy. Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Clap along if you feel like...
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