Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

Military and Economic Power Once Again Fail to Produce Happiness

Ultimately, a high level of happiness requires social solidarity.

Lawrence Wittner

Although the rulers of the world’s major military and economic powers have repeatedly claimed that they are making their nations great again, their policies have not resulted in widespread happiness among their citizens.

That conclusion emerges from the recent World Happiness Report-2022, published by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Based on Gallup World Polls conducted from 2019 through 2021, this extensive study provides a revealing look at how roughly 150,000 respondents in 146 countries rated their own happiness. The study’s findings underscore the limited levels of happiness in the world’s major military-economic powers.

There is little doubt about which nations belong in this category.  In 2020 (the latest year for which accurate figures are available), the world’s biggest military spenders were the United States (#1), China (#2), India (#3), and Russia (#4).  Collectively, they accounted for nearly 59 percent of the world’s military spending and the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons.

When nations are ranked by total wealth, a similar pattern appears:  United States (#1), China (#2), India (#7), Russia (#13).  Despite their ostensibly different economic models, they all boast a hefty share of the world’s billionaires, and once again their ranking is rather similar:  United States (#1), China (#2), India (#3), and Russia  (#5).

And what has this enormous array of military and economic power produced for their citizens?  Well, as it turns out, not a great deal of happiness.  The most positive thing that can be said for it is that the United States currently ranks a rather dispiriting 16th on this score.  China ranks 72nd. Russia ranks 80th.  And India is 136th.  Furthermore, over the decade since the annual world happiness surveys began, in 2012, none of these major powers has ever appeared among the ten happiest nations.

In 2022, the ten happiest countries were: Finland (#1), Denmark (#2), Iceland (#3), Switzerland (#4), Netherlands (#5), Luxembourg (#6), Sweden (#7), Norway (#8), Israel (#9), and New Zealand (#10).

It is deceptively easy to conclude that the explanation for this high level of happiness lies in the fact that these ten are all fairly comfortable, economically advanced nations. Even so, there is no significant correlation between a nation’s rank in happiness and its per capita income. Indeed, seven of the nations (Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Sweden, Israel, and New Zealand) did not place at all among the top twelve nations in per capita income during 2021. Finland, ranking #1 for happiness for the fifth year in a row, ranked #25 in per capita income. New Zealand, ranking #10 for happiness, ranked #31 for per capita income. Conversely, Singapore, which ranked #3 in per capita income, ranked #27 for happiness, while United Arab Emirates, which ranked #6 in per capita income, ranked #24 for happiness. Factors other than top incomes were clearly at work in producing the happiest nations.

One such factor appears to be the provision of substantial public services.  A striking feature of the world’s nations is that all five Nordic countries rank among the ten happiest. What these five countries have in common are social democratic policies that counteract income inequality and dramatically reduce poverty by providing free or low-cost healthcare, dental care, housing, education, and childcare, as well as ample pensions and a range of other “welfare state” benefits. Moreover, the other five happiest countries also maintain significant social welfare systems.

The happiest nations also stand out for their relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth.  Each of the ten happiest nations, except Israel, has greater equality of wealth than do the four major military-economic powers.  And even that nation’s wealth distribution is considerably more equal than that of the United States and only slightly more unequal than China’s.

Yet another contrast appears when it comes to military spending.  Given the enormous Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the four biggest military-economic powers, an adequate “defense” of their nations should be less of an economic burden on them than it would be on the economies of these ten much smaller, less wealthy nations.  But, in fact, the reverse is true in eight of the happiest nations, which devoted a smaller percentage of their GDP to military spending in 2020 (the latest year for which accurate figures are available) than did all but one of the four major military-economic powers.  Sweden, for example, spent only 1.22 percent, Denmark 1.44 percent, and Finland 1.53 percent of their small GDPs on their armed forces, while India spent 2.88 percent, the United States 3.74 percent, and Russia 4.26 percent of their much larger GDPs to fund their military might.

Admittedly, poverty and national insecurity do appear to play important roles in reducing human happiness.  The lowest ranking nations in World Happiness Report-2022 are very poor nations, or nations plagued by violence, or both, such as the Palestinian territories (#122), Myanmar (#126), Yemen (#132), and Afghanistan (#146).

Even so, as the global happiness studies indicate, great military and economic power bring nations only so far. Ultimately, a high level of happiness requires social solidarity.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany who has written extensively on peace movements, foreign policy, and economic inequality. He is the author of "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" (2009).

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Omar Leads Charge Against Baby Formula Monopolies Amid US Shortage

Democrats urge the FTC to probe "any unfair or unsustainable practices, like deceptive marketing, price gouging, and stock buybacks, that may be weakening our nutritional formula supply."

Jessica Corbett ·

'Arbitrary, Racist, and Unfair': Judge Blocks Biden From Ending Title 42

"Only the coyotes profiteering off of people seeking protection have reason to celebrate this ill-reasoned ruling," said one migrant rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·

'This Is a War' for Democratic Party's Future, Says Sanders of AIPAC's Super PAC

"They are doing everything they can to destroy the progressive movement in this country," said the senator.

Julia Conley ·

Ginni Thomas Pressed Arizona Lawmakers to Reverse Biden's 2020 Win: Report

"Clarence Thomas' continued service on the Supreme Court is a scandalous and appalling breach of judicial ethics," said one observer. "He is implementing the exact same theories that his wife used to try to steal the 2020 election for Trump."

Brett Wilkins ·

Millions More Kids Going Hungry Since GOP, Manchin Killed Expanded Child Tax Credit

"Even brief disruptions in access to food can have lasting consequences," wrote the authors of a new analysis of worsening hunger among U.S. families.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo