View of Copenhagen.

Denmark tops the bill in a European happiness survey – but Britain is gloomier than most of its EU peers

The most important factors influencing happiness appear to be the quality of our social interaction with others and the confidence we have in our country's institutions.

Luisa Corrado

The Danish have emerged as the happiest people in Europe, while the British rank a mere ninth, according to a new University of Cambridge study on happiness.

The report, which applies new techniques for understanding European well-being, also suggests that people in Scotland, Wales and most parts of England consider themselves less happy now than they were four years ago.

Researchers at the University's Faculty of Economics, who are unveiling the first stage of their findings on the subject, say the slump in public contentment could be due to flagging trust in the Government and other institutions.

Their preliminary report provides a full assessment of the results of the European Social Survey into well-being, which began in 2002.

Every two years, approximately 20,000 people throughout the 180 regions are asked to rate both their overall happiness and longer-term sense of fulfilment ("life satisfaction") out of 10. The scores are then cross-referred with the results of a more extensive survey, designed by a team of leading psychologists, which asks questions ranging from "How religious are you?" to "How much do you personally trust the police?" The aim is to identify not just where in Europe people are happiest, but why, with a view to informing policy.

After two years of compilation and analysis, trends are now emerging for the 15 states who were EU members in 2004 (the so-called "EU 15"), enabling a region-by-region breakdown of people's happiness.

In Scotland, Wales, the north of England and the south-west, the average score out of 10 for happiness was about 7.5 at the last count, compared with a result closer to 8 in 2002. The only regions to return a consistent 8/10 score were East Anglia, London and the East Midlands. The average score for life satisfaction remained steady at around 7.

The averages leave Britain ranking 9th for happiness in the table of 15 European countries, and 10th for life satisfaction. People in Denmark were the happiest and most satisfied, while the Italians and the Portuguese were deemed the most miserable.

The map of European well-being also puts paid to some long-standing national stereotypes. In particular, the idea that people are happiest along the sunny banks of the Mediterranean does not appear to be true. Italy, Portugal and Greece are consistently among the lowest-scoring countries in the survey, while the highest scores were registered in the chillier surrounds of Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, as well as among the table-topping Danes.

Women generally classed themselves as happier than men, while the old and young tended to be happier than people in their middle years.

The Cambridge team has now begun to analyse what makes people in some countries happier than others. One of the most consistent trends is that those with the highest levels of happiness also reported the highest levels of trust in their governments, the police and the justice system, as well as those around them. Happier people also tended to have plenty of friends and acquaintances, as well as at least one very close friend, or a partner.

The report also appears to confirm the old adage that money can't buy you happiness. In countries where the population generally said that they trusted the government and other institutions, a high income made people happier still - but in those countries where such trust was lacking (such as Italy), even the richest tended to be less happy. The degree to which people had been educated had a similarly limited impact on their overall well-being. But the degree to which peoples' jobs gave them a sense of self-respect did appear to influence their happiness levels.

Dr Luisa Corrado, who led the research, said: "People throughout the EU appear to be relatively happy, and no area scored below five in terms of either happiness or life satisfaction. The most important factors influencing happiness appear to be the quality of our social interaction with others and the confidence we have in our country's institutions.

"The survey shows that trust in society is very important. The countries that scored highest for happiness also reported the highest levels of trust in their governments, laws and each other. The UK shows lower trust in government, the police and other institutions and higher social distrust, which might explain why the level of happiness among British people is also lower compared with other countries."

Many of the happiest countries in the survey - the Scandinavian members, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - also come top of the World Bank Governance Indicators, which seek to assess the quality of a country's government. Likewise those EU 15 countries that scored worst in terms of governance (Italy, Portugal and Greece) tended to come bottom in the happiness survey as well.

Unhappy people are unlikely to change their lives simply by hopping on the next plane to Copenhagen, however. People who were indigenous citizens of the country they lived in tended to be happier than those who were not, probably because these people usually know more of the people around them and have wider social networks.

"The message to policy-makers is that they should therefore promote social inclusion, because that brings the psychological integration that is essential to happiness," Dr Corrado added. "One thing that is clear from the report is that it is not enough for governments to focus on improving wealth. Our well-being would be more likely to flourish in a mutually supportive and trusting society. The question is: Are governments addressing these issues?"

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