Could measuring what matters be a bridge to happiness?


At the Happiness Research Institute, we believe that the ultimate goal of public policies should be to improve quality of life. Similarly, we work with measures that complement the conventional ways of measuring progress in society–in terms of growth and GDP per capita. Obviously, human well-being is more than wealth.

Robert F Kennedy famously pointed out that GDP “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” and today, GDP is increasingly recognised as an insufficient measure of quality of life.
And with good reason. We have become richer–but not necessarily happier. We have far too often failed to convert wealth into well-being.

We were encouraged to witness the United Nations pass the resolution on happiness in 2011 and pointing out that “happiness as a universal goal and aspiration embodies the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals.”

Since the UN resolution, governments are increasingly discovering how happiness research can contribute to public policy and we are encouraged by the increasing number of institutions, cities and governments which are working with new well-being measures of progress. This is to be welcomed, because we should measure what matters. The OECD is pioneering this field with initiatives such as the OECD Better Life Index.

Research into the determinants of happiness can play a major role in shifting policy priorities. For instance, by boosting the quality of life in our societies, we may also accomplish additional goals, such as longevity and increased productivity for our citizens.

As the World Happiness Report 2013, commissioned by the United Nations, points out: “Given the tangible benefits to individuals and societies of moderately high well-being, it is ever more urgent that we act to effectively put well-being at the heart of policy and generate the conditions that allow everyone to flourish”.

The World Happiness Report has been published five times now, with the Nordic countries having established their position as the world’s “happiness superpowers”.

This has led to a widespread interest in the Nordic model and barely a week goes by without my being interviewed by another journalist keen to find out what the secret ingredient of Nordic happiness is.

What we find is that the Nordic welfare model is the most efficient in turning wealth into well-being. We are not in fact paying taxes, rather, we are investing in our society. We are purchasing a better quality of life. The key to understanding the high levels of happiness in the Nordic countries is the welfare model’s ability to reduce risks, uncertainties and anxieties among its people and prevent extreme unhappiness.

Danes (like people from other Nordic countries) simply have less to worry about in daily life than most other people, and that lays a sound basis for enjoying higher levels of happiness. At least that is what we see in the data. Let me give you an example.

Bridging the happiness gap

PsoHappy ( is a study which explores the impact psoriasis, a common skin disorder, has on the subjective well-being of people. It is a collaboration between the Happiness Research Institute and LEO Innovation Lab and to date, we have been able to collect and analyse almost 50,000 responses from over 43 countries.

In every country, we find that those living with psoriasis are less happy than the general population. It is no surprise that living with such a condition affects quality of life, but what is more interesting is that the happiness gap varies between countries. For instance, our data shows that in Denmark the happiness gap is 12%, while in the US and the UK it widens to 20% and 24%, respectively. That means that, taking all factors into account, it is harder to live with psoriasis in the UK than in Denmark.

The implications of this study for our understanding of happiness and well-being should not be underestimated. By building a comprehensive understanding of well-being inequalities in relation to chronic health conditions across countries, we can start to piece together why these inequalities exist, draw lessons from where the happiness gap might be smaller, and assess the link between healthcare and broader development indicators.

References and further reading

Visit the

Visit PsoHappy website at

Robert F Kennedy, remarks at the University of Kansas, 18 March 1968, see

UN General Assembly Resolution 65/309 of 19 July 2011, entitled “Happiness:
towards a holistic approach to development”, see

United Nations (2013), World Happiness Report 2013, see http://worldhappiness.


OECD work on social and welfare issues

OECD Forum 2017 issues

©OECD Yearbook 2017. See


Meik Wiking
Chief Executive, Happiness Research Institute,
Denmark; Author, The Little Book of Hygge

© OECD Yearbook





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