How Can Countries Get Happier?

It's not just about money.

Happiness. It's an abstract and relative concept. When you're feeling a bit down, your family or friends might tell you to watch your favourite movie, or tuck into your favourite sweet treat; the advice might be to do some exercise, get some sunshine, or see a friend.

But when we're talking about happiness at a national level, on the scale of hundreds of thousands or millions of people, it's not quite that easy.

Why are some countries happier than others?

It's a question that has been examined by multiple experts and multiple studies. Each year the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases its World Happiness Report. It uses a matrix called the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, or just the Cantril Scale, which asks participants to rank their happiness as if it were steps on a ten-rung ladder.

Happiness isn't easy to quantify (Getty Images)

In recent Happiness Reports, it has been northern European countries which have taken out the top spot, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and current top dog Finland.

"All the top countries tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity," the U.N. said in its latest report.

So are those the keys to happiness? Money, long life, help to keep living that life comfortably, the freedom to do what you want, the comfort that you can trust your fellow citizens, and the less fortunate being able to rely on the more well-off?

It's probably no surprise the Scandinavian countries, with strong social safety nets providing citizens with health, education and income, always poll strongly on the happiness index.

In fact, the top six countries in the latest Happiness Report are from northern Europe: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Canada came in at number seven, followed by New Zealand, another European entry with Sweden, and Australia rounding out the top ten.

Get happy? Move to Finland (Getty Images)

The United States came in at 18, the United Kingdom at 19. A number of African countries brought up the rear, with Tanzania, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Burundi the bottom four places on the list.

Again, it's probably not much surprise that developed nations are at the top of the list while developing nations are at the other end. But countries like Togo, Sierra Leone and Morocco were among the big movers in becoming more happy countries in the latest report, thanks largely to " the rising average life evaluations for the transition countries".

So what can countries do to make their people happier? Things like 'more money' seem easy solutions. Keeping their people healthier, living longer, and more comfortable are also big ones.

But those are hardly a cure-all. As the BBC points out, South Korea has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but the country is way down at 57 in the world happiness rankings -- below Lithuania, Latvia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"What really matters is to ensure that the people actually enjoy a quality of life befitting a per capita income of US$30,000," South Korean president Moon Jae-In said.

The country is legislating plans to decrease the maximum number of hours to be worked each week in the traditionally hard-working country, while boosting funds for social support services like childcare pensions.

But it's not just easy fixes for government. The happiness report draws on Gallup's yearly World Poll, which asks people questions like "if you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?"

People who said yes were happier, people who said no were not as happy. These aren't exactly things governments can click their fingers and fix. It's a much more difficult issue to address, about fostering togetherness and camaraderie in a country.

Money is nice, but it isn't the main happiness factor (Getty Images)

While our parliament is more than a little dysfunctional lately, Australia is still doing pretty well on the happiness scale -- at least compared to our close cousins in the U.S. and U.K.

While both those countries have been torn apart by their own divisive votes in recent votes, in presidential and Brexit elections respectively, Australia has so far been spared any nation-rending debates of such culture-ripping significance. Our closest example, the marriage equality vote, came through with a 61-39 yes result.

Compared to many other countries, relatively speaking, Australia has high wages, good access to university, cheap healthcare and a fair degree of social mobility -- all important factors in the U.N.'s happiness report.

So, despite how the saying goes, it seems you can buy happiness -- or, at least, happiness is tied up in what you can buy. But it's far more than that, and about fostering that strong community in a nation, which isn't such an easy fix.