The 2018 UN World Happiness Report: most atheistic (and socially well off) countries are the happiest, while religious countries are poor and unhappy

March 20, 2018 • 8:45 am

The 2018 edition of the World Happiness Report is out, and it shows pretty much what other recent reports have shown: Western European countries are the world’s happiest, the poor countries of Africa and the Middle East are the world’s unhappiest, and Finland has moved into the #1 spot. A new aspect of the report deals with immigration, and finds that immigrants quickly tend to approach the happiness of the countries to which they moved. This is expected because, after all, immigrants usually move to where they expect to find a better life.

The report is carried out and prepared by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and “happiness” is simply inhabitants’ self-report of their state of mental well-being. The study found, as always, that happiness is strongly correlated with variables like income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. (Note: religiosity isn’t mentioned, at least not that I can find.)

Click on the screenshot to access the full report (you have to download individual chapters and the appendices):

And, here are the rankings, from happiest to unhappiest countries, with the statistical analysis of what factors contributed to the overall happiness, which is measured on a scale from zero to eight (data from this part of the report).

Most of the top 20 countries are from Western Europe or are Anglophone, while, with the exception of Ukraine, all the 20 bottom countries are from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This is similar to the results of last year’s report.

Here’s a map of happiness measured in 2017. Greenest countries are the happiest (scores above 5.0; darker green indicates real happiness), while red and blackish-brown countries are the unhappy ones (scores below 5.0).  You can see that misery correlates with social well-being, including poverty. But it also correlates (negatively) with religiosity.

As I said, the self-perceived happiness of people is highly correlated with their income, health, freedom, and social support, which explains the patterns above. But I’m absolutely sure, based on partial surveys I’ve reported before, that happiness is also, across all countries, strongly and negatively correlated with their religiosity. That is, the most religious countries (which happen to be those in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa) are the unhappiest, while the most atheistic countries—those in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, as well as Australia and Canada—are the happiest. (The U.S., which is the most religious First World nation, ranks as #18.)

It would be lovely if some reader with extra time correlated religiosity with happiness. I’ll bet $50 the correlation is negative and statistically significant. Reader Gluon Spring did a correlation two years ago with some of the data, and here’s the result, with the 95% confidence interval around the regression line:

No wonder people ignore religiosity when they’re analyzing happiness! Who but a petulant atheist would even make a plot like this?

Of course correlations are not causation, and the negative correlation that I expect between religiosity and happiness does not mean that atheism makes people happier, or religion unhappier. What it means—and this is supported by several sociological studies (see here for one)—is likely that people either turn to religion or maintain their religion when their social situation is so dire that they’re unhappy.  When conditions are good, and there’s lots of social support, including help for sick people, old people, free medical care, and so on, then there’s no need to be religious, no need to supplicate a god for what your society can’t provide. When you’re well off, your country gradually loses religion, the thesis of Norris and Inglehart in the preceding link.

In short, what makes people happy is not religion, but material well being and the assurance of material aid. That’s supported by the study’s finding that immigrants, including Muslims from the Middle East, quickly gain the happiness of their new country, while (I suspect), still keeping their religion, though perhaps in an attenuated form.

Religion is simply what you do when you don’t have well being.

I always quote Marx on this point. I’m not a Marxist, but here’s one place he was right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

—Karl Marx (1843)


33 thoughts on “The 2018 UN World Happiness Report: most atheistic (and socially well off) countries are the happiest, while religious countries are poor and unhappy

  1. Religion is simply what you do when you don’t have well being.

    Not simply — statistically, and it’s complicated. A lot of fairly comfortable religious folk focus on spiritual attributes of “expressing gratitude” or “seeing the Divine in all things.” That’s a lot easier when you’re well off.

    But I think it’s a lot harder to look at others expressing non religious feelings of appreciation and joy and think “no, those don’t count.” People with a high sense of well being tend to feel charitable towards others and have trouble drawing enemy lines against their neighbors. And in the long run, the recognition that there’s no deep, serious, critical universal need which only belief in God will or can fill probably chips away at personal belief — and belief in general.

  2. Jerry, I agree with all you write about religion, however a correlation between countries does not allow to draw conclusion at the level of individual people; this would be what epidemiologists call an “ecological fallacy” (epidemiologists make a bizarre use of the word “ecological”).

    1. It is indeed possible for religiosity to correlate positively with happiness within countries, while still correlating negatively with happiness among countries. These data don’t address the within correlation, and I don’t think Jerry said that they did in the OP. What the data do show is that less religious countries are happier countries, so less religion is correlated with the socio-cultural circumstances that produce happiness. It might still be the case that an individual could become happier, within his culture, by becoming religious. But if you want everyone to be happier, then you want to promote the socio-cultural conditions that lead to general happiness.

      The term “ecological fallacy”, as you note, seems bizarre. The phenomenon is well known in morphometrics, where I don’t believe it has a name. For example, the fact that big species of deer have disproportionately large antlers does *not* imply that bigger individuals within a species have disproportionately larger antlers.

  3. Its bad enough that religion is the opiate of the masses but in the US the overdose epidemic is ruining the country.

  4. When we say lets do things socially that improve conditions for all the citizens, that falls directly on the Scandinavian region. Much in religion simply does not do this. It makes second class citizens of half the population even before it gets started. The treatment of women or others outside of the religion are part of the second class. How does any country, heavy into a religion that operates this way expect to progress?

  5. Education may be one of the correlates of both being well-off and not religious, or at least not very religious.

    After all, knowledge tends both to facilitate the attainment of wealth and appears to promote secularization. In the sciences, that seems to be due at least in part to the fact that religious ways to “knowledge” don’t work.

    Glen Davidson

  6. Personally I think happiness is the default condition in the absence of worry. It doesn’t take a lot to be happy, it just takes enough. If you know where your next meal is coming from and you have a roof over your head and no one is coming to kill you, you will be happy. That’s why first world countries are happy. Not so sure it’s about religion so much though worrying you’re going to burn in hell if you don’t obey the priest has got to be a downer.

    1. Happiness is a subjective condition and one should define it before talking about it. The millions of people who have physical and psychological problems as well as those who feel there is something “missing” from their lives despite having all their material needs met would probably have a more expansive definition of the word than yours.

    2. I think it is more complicated. Happiness also correlates with how one compares oneself with others. Someone who is poor but surrounded by rich people will, in general, be less happy than if surrounded by other poor people. Who one compares oneself to is a complicated matter. For example, the average Chinese person is much poorer than the average American but it is doubtful many compare themselves either way.

    3. This simply isn’t true Kevin – freedom from want & being safe from physical violence does not a happy person make. I’m with Paul Topping [below] on this – the individual is acutely conscious of their own ‘wealth’, health & freedom of choice relative to those around them.

      Part of the Skandi happiness model is due to a formula being in place that limits the gap in earnings between lowest & highest paid workers – if the boss wants to hike his pay then he has to drag the office boy & cleaner upwards too. Having a share in the business that occupies a quarter of your awake life [no matter how lowly ones position] makes a big difference psychologically even if there’s no actual difference in remuneration. A feeling of belonging, social inclusion & having a voice are necessary foundations for well being.

  7. I’m no Marxist either — and I find his prescriptive writings to be dangerous horseshit — but Marx was undoubtedly one of the most trenchant social and economic critics ever to put pen to palimpsest.

    1. I always say to people: read Marx. If you disagree with the prescriptions (and they are sometimes dubious, often nonexistent), *propose another solution* to the very real problems. People did this, of course – the “anarchist” tradition is another answer.

  8. A few other correlations evident from the Happiness scores are of interest. Of the 11 nations which score highest, only one (the Netherlands) has a history of imperialism outside of Europe and established significant overseas colonies; only two others (Denmark and Sweden) held any minor colonies at all. It might also be of interest that the only Mid-East country in the highest group is Israel, at #11.

    The countries of Latin America are widely distributed in the ranking: Costa Rica at #13 is among the higest; Mexico (24), Chile (25), Panama (27), Brazil (28), Argentina (29), Guatemala (30), Uruguay (31), and Colombia (37) are in respectable middling positions; assorted other Latin American countries appear further down in the list. At the very bottom for Latin America at #102, barely ahead of Gabon, we find Venezuela, which has been the lucky beneficiary of two decades of rule by the Unified Socialist Party of Chavez and Maduro.

  9. Whether religion helps or hinders, it’s odd to see such a disparity between Finland (#1) and Estonia (#62). Ethnically and linguistically related, both doing very well in high-tech. Estonia is poorer, of course, but has had among the highest rates of growth in Europe [trajectory usually correlated to confidence in the future]. And Estonians are about half as likely to believe in God as are Finns [18% vs. 33%)

    Perhaps the unhappiness in Estonia relates to significant Russian minority — who are themselves oppressed and with an expansionist Russia, a worry to the majority.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Here’s a direct comparison:

      The two countries are very similar except for the correction factor “dystopia” [pale purple] – I didn’t understand the definition for it & how it is applied – maybe you will:

      What is Dystopia?

      Dystopia is an imaginary country that has the world’s least-happy people. The purpose in establishing Dystopia is to have a benchmark against which all countries can be favorably compared (no country performs more poorly than Dystopia) in terms of each of the six key variables, thus allowing each sub-bar to be of positive width. The lowest scores observed for the six key variables, therefore, characterize Dystopia. Since life would be very unpleasant in a country with the world’s lowest incomes, lowest life expectancy, lowest generosity, most corruption, least freedom and least social support, it is referred to as “Dystopia,” in contrast to Utopia.

      I know that jobs & incomes are weak in Estonia. Too weak considering Estonia’s strength in other areas.

      I think if I was Estonian I’d have my ‘happiness’ effected by Russia’s cyberwar capabilities – Russia crushed Estonia a decade ago.

  10. I think that IQ of nation and happiness will show moderate to strong positive correlation. There are all kinds of correlations one could find.

  11. I would like to see this information correlated to genetic evolutionary lines (populations) from sub-Saharan Africa out to the broader world.
    Yes politically incorrect, but genes have lots to answer for.

    1. Nick. The site you’ve linked to in your name [] is infected with malware.
      It is also blacklisted for running phishing scams.

  12. Japan is low??? How was happiness measured? How was religiosity measured?
    Most of the countries in the first twenty you say are Anglo. That gives me another correlation. The colonial countries taht caused genocide are also in this group. UK committed genocide in India alone creating famines and looting- millions of Indians killed by rulers like Churchill. The USa killed as many as 200 million First Nations People. Australia and New Zealand wiped out whole tribes. Canada committed genocide and it is on going genocide there where the Police and RCMP facilitate genocide. No wonder the white nations are the happiest. they derive their happiness by killing other races indiscriminately. These are also the countries that caused more violent wars than any other group of countries. These are also countries that promote Evangelism in other countries. How can you say the USA is non religious? France is non religious? The UK is non religious? This is a bogus survey. Fake, fake, fake .Some lazy mind came up with this idea.

    1. “The UK is non religious?”

      Yes. Religion – specifically, the Church of England, is (sadly) intertwined with our institutions, but 53% of the UK population have no religion.


    2. Do you seriously think that the economy of pre-Columbian America could support anywhere close to 200 million people? And where do you put the deeds of Japanese militaristic regime during WWII, the genocides in Bangladesh, Rwanda, Sudan? As for native Americans, some of them had their own genocides. The Aztecs constantly waged wars on their neighbors to get prisoners for sacrifice, the Incas systematically sent settlers to conquered tribes and supplanted the local languages. Small wonder that many native Americans sided with the European invaders against their local overlords.

  13. Am I not reading Michael’s graph right, or is Cyprus out of place on the happiness axis? It’s 61 on the UN chart, but is right up there with Finland and Norway on the graph.

    That’s the only one that leapt out at me, but perhaps there are others?

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