Mapping happiness across europe and why trust

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Traditional stereotypes suggest that southern Europeans, hailing from the warmer Mediterranean regions, are far happier and more satisfied with life than their northern European counterparts. Yet data from the new European Social Survey suggests that the map of wellbeing across Europe is at odds with this image: Italy, Greece, Portugal and France report the lowest levels of wellbeing relative to the Scandinavian countries; and while 80% of Danish respondents report levels of happiness above the European average, the equivalent figure for Italy is only 26%.
These findings raise many questions: what actually determines wellbeing? How did this map develop? And what factors, besides location and climate, affect individual happiness and life satisfaction? Research by Aqib Aslam and Luisa Corrado finds that levels of trust in Parliament, society and the legal system are all highly significant for a nation’s happiness. They conclude that wellbeing would flourish if we lived in a mutually supportive and trusting society.
The study seeks to understand not only which factors play a significant role in determining individual wellbeing, but also whether the attributes of those closest to us regionally affect us more than national trends and beliefs. Understanding the notion of wellbeing is paramount. Is wellbeing synonymous with happiness? And since governments typically judge relative national performance via economic indicators, is the richest nation always the happiest?
In reality, things are more complicated. Individual wellbeing, taken from psychology, is composed of eudaimonia (or life satisfaction) alongside the Bacchanalian concept of hedonism, which is synonymous with happiness. This allows a dual measure of wellbeing: short-term happiness and long-term life satisfaction.
Looking at the survey data for life satisfaction, Denmark once again is top with 82% reporting levels of life satisfaction above the EU-15 average; Portugal is bottom with 17%.
Aslam and Corrado’s results show that except for the richest individuals, income is not a significant determinant of either type of wellbeing. This suggests that there is something else driving reported wellbeing across Europe.
For example, they find that certain variables such as the level of trust in Parliament, society and the legal system are significant, as well as the levels of political interest, social engagement and perceived altruism.
In addition, they conclude that although certain regional and national attributes are significant, it is primarily individual attitudes that best explain wellbeing. And alongside subjective beliefs, socio-demographic indicators such as age and marital status are also key drivers.
Given these results, it is possible to return to the survey data and study particular variables to understand how certain regions in Europe could be ‘happier’ or ‘more satisfied’ than others: For example:

  • Trust in Parliament: Denmark is top with 64% reporting a level of trust above the European average; Portugal scores lowest with 19%.

  • Trust in Society: once again Denmark is highest with 72% reporting above the European average; Greece is bottom with reported trust at 24%.

  • Trust in Legal System: Finland comes first with 74%; Portugal comes last with 26%.

With the significance of such institutional factors, their low scores could help explain why southern Europe lags behind the north. These findings suggest that wellbeing would flourish if we lived in a mutually supportive and trusting society.

Are governments addressing these issues? To some extent, but not with the same vigour and detail that has been employed to pursue economic growth as a panacea for social discomfort. As Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman suggested, a solution could be to establish ‘wellbeing national accounts’ for monitoring policies from a social perspective. Therefore we can judge our politicians on the basis of improvements in wellbeing as much as by how much the economy performs.

Notes for editors: ‘No Man is an Island: The Inter-personal Determinants of Regional Wellbeing across Europe’ by Aqib Aslam and Luisa Corrado was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2007 annual conference at the University of Warwick, 11-13 April.
Luisa Corrado and Aqib Aslam are both at the University of Cambridge. Luisa Corrado is also associate professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.
For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email:; Luisa Corrado on 07914-891970 (email:; website; or Aqib Aslam on 07957 687863 (email:

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