Revealed: The happiest countries in Europe

Sweden and Iceland are the happiest countries in Europe because they are very big on ‘social support’, scientists claim (and the UK ranks fourth out of 13!)

  • A Happiness Index made by Spanish scientists ranks the Nordic countries top 
  • Its rankings are based on official statistics instead of questionnaires  
  • Experts hope the index will help countries see where they need to improve 

Sweden and Iceland are the happiest countries in Europe, according to a new index developed by scientists.

The system for judging a nation’s satisfaction is based on official statistics rather than questionnaires answered by some of the population.

Data on a country’s development, freedom, solidarity, justice and peace are measured to build rankings and work out how people can be made happier.

Of 13 countries on which the index was tested, Iceland and Sweden come out on top, with a 76 out of 100 score. Austria places third on 74, and the UK fourth with 69. 

Experts hope analysing countries this way could help develop strategies for their countries to improve people’s happiness.

Nordic countries such as Sweden and Iceland, which have high incomes and good government services, regularly rank as the happiest and best places to live in the world

Researchers at the University of Valencia in Spain invented the Happiness Index named HAIN in a study using official data from sources such as the UN, World Data Bank and Eurostat.

They tested the index on 13 European countries for which all the data they wanted was available: Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

Top rankings line up with UN Happiness Report 

The top four countries – Iceland, Sweden, Austria and the UK – are in the same order but in different ranks in the World Happiness Report 2018, commissioned by the UN.

In the UN’s much larger list, which ranks 156 countries, Finland is the happiest country, followed by Norway in second, Denmark in third, and Iceland in fourth. 


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The Nordic countries regularly top happiest and quality of life surveys; this is thought to be partly due to higher incomes and good government and community support. 

Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, an author of the UN’s Happiness Report, told Time: ‘The Scandinavian countries are very big on social support.

‘The top countries, you can see, have societies which are not at each others throats. But also they have high GDP per capita.’   

Their happiness could be down to high taxes – in Denmark people pay a lot of tax but in return they get free university education, free healthcare, generous maternity leave and unemployment benefits, the BBC reports.

Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen said in 2016: ‘We are not paying taxes. We are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life.’ 


New index is different because it uses data, not questionnaires

As well as Iceland making the top four, the UN ranks HAIN top performers Sweden ninth, Austria 12th and the UK 19th.

There are differences among other countries, however, and the Czech Republic ranks higher than France and Spain in the UN’s list but not in the HAIN.

It also rates Croatia as a happier country than Lithuania, Latvia and Portugal, which is not reflected in the World Happiness Report.

The HAIN is also different because it looks at data on the quality of education, migration and importing and exporting of goods and services.

Professor Joan Micó, who was involved in creating the index, said: ‘At the moment, happiness indexes are based on questionnaires that a certain sample of the population answer.

‘They are therefore very subjective values. Unlike these, our index is created based on objective data, official statistics that represent a country’s entire population.’

How the index works

The HAIN rates a country between zero and one on its levels of development, freedom, solidarity, justice and peace. 

The figure changes over time as data changes on factors such as population, births, literacy rate, income per person and life expectancy.

Data for this study was taken from UN Human Development Reports and World Bank and Eurostat data between 1996 and 2015.

An average is then taken of all five scores to produce an Overall Satisfaction Index score on which the countries are ranked.

Iceland and Sweden’s figures – the highest – were 0.76. 

Data could teach countries how to be happier 

By rating countries in such detail experts hope the HAIN will show governments what they need to do for their populations to be happier.

‘This index is part of a mathematic equation that provides objective guidelines on how to improve the happiness of a society,’ said Professor Micó.

Researchers say the scores produced in this study reflect the countries’ happiness in 2013, but they hope to use the index to study more countries in future.   

They hope to discover links between happiness and geographic regions, climates and religions.

‘We also want to polish the model for more countries, so that we can include more social and financial variables,’ added study author Antonio Caselles. 

‘The end goal is that HAIN can be used to find strategies adapted to the specific governing issues of each country.’ 

The HAIN was published in a study called ‘A stochastic dynamical social model involving a human happiness index’ in the Journal of Computational and Applied Mathematics.


Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – consistently rank highly in surveys of quality of life around the world.

They have dominated the top spots in the UN’s World Happiness Report since it began in 2012.

Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute – based in Denmark – says the countries ‘are doing something right in terms of creating good conditions for good lives.’

The countries have high average incomes, long life expectancy and good government support services, which could explain why they rate so well.

They are also said to have good community spirit among the population, and have job security and positive working environments.

Unemployment insurance – and work experience schemes to get people back into jobs – plus child support also contribute to wellbeing.

Danish people, for example, pay high taxes – up to 51.5% of their income for a high earner – and the money is reinvested in society. 

In return they get free university education, free healthcare, generous maternity leave and unemployment benefits. 

Sources: Happiness Research Institute, BBC and TIME

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