Jon King- The Geography of Happiness

Jon, an intern with National Geographic Television Standards and Practices, graduated from Middlebury College with a major in geography and a minor in Russian. He holds a strong interest in urban, economic, and political geography. Like most geography majors, Jon loves to stare listlessly at the world map on the wall of his room and hopes to visit as many places shown on it as possible before he dies.

What makes a person happy?  It’s a simple question, but a definite answer has eluded humanity since our hominid ancestors first developed the ability to feel emotions.  Now, thanks to the cartographic work of Adrian White, a psychology professor at Britain’s University of Leicester, we can explore ways that happiness might be related to geography.


In 2006, White mapped national levels of individual happiness or, if we want to use his more social-sciency term, life-satisfaction.  To make the map, White used life-satisfaction scores that other scholars had derived for every country in the world. They had analyzed a compilation of responses to several international surveys asking people to answer, usually on a scale from 1 to 10, various forms of the following question: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”  
What types of countries tend to be the happiest ones?  The most immediately observable trend here is that people living in wealthier countries are, in general, more satisfied with their lives than those living in poorer ones. But, look at all the exceptions to this rule! Japan, one of the world’s economic powerhouses, ranks 90th, behind far less wealthy places like Colombia, Mongolia, and Cuba.  The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has a GDP per capita less than 5% that of United States, but it ranks 15 spaces ahead of it.  Though the majority of countries in both the CIS (Russia and most adjacent countries) and Latin America fall same middle-of-road GDP per capita range , people living in the former group appear on average to be quite a bit more miserable than those living in the latter group.  Sociologists have theorized  that a country’s life-satisfaction level also depends heavily on its level of political freedom, its employment rate, and its ease of access to adequate education and health care.

Should they include geography alongside these factors?   Does a country’s location hold influence over its citizens’ relative life satisfaction levels?  The map answers these questions with an affirmative “yes.”  Happier countries tend to cluster together and less happy countries can be found near similarly miserable ones. This regional variation in national life satisfaction suggests that happy people are not uniformly distributed throughout the world’s population. They tend to live where other happy people live. Through studies, some researchers have shown that a person’s satisfaction with life is determined in part by genetics, in part by other uncontrollable life circumstances, and in part by an by the results of his/or her deliberate efforts to become happier.  In other words, a combination of objective and subjective factors determines an individual’s happiness.  The map shows that place of residence can join the list of objective factors.  Your happiness is both about who you are and where you are.


“Calculating the HPI.”  The Happy Planet Index. Accessed 10 November 2009.

White, Adrian A. “A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: a challenge to positive psychology.” PsychTalk. (2007) 56.1: 17-20.   Accessed 10 November 2009.  Accessed 10 November 2009.

“The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Quality of Life Index.”  Accessed 10 November 2009.

Carol Graham.  “The Economics of Happiness.”  The Brookings Institution.

“Denmark ‘happiest place on earth.’ ” BBC.  Accessed 10 November 2009.

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