Have you ever visited a different part of the world and thought, "Wow, everyone here seems so carefree!" If you have, you might be on to something. Researchers have studied and compared lifestyles in different countries with surprising findings. Some countries do consistently report lower rates of stress and higher levels of life satisfaction than others. In fact, there are several factors that contribute to higher rates of happiness and satisfaction and unfortunately, also to higher rates of stress.
Countries With High Levels of Life Satisfaction
Every year, the World Happiness Report collects data on over 140 countries across the world to discover how happy they are. The report collects survey data from 1,000 participants in each country and asks them to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 how satisfied they are across several different aspects of life. Survey topics included: levels of social support, healthy life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.
All of this data is then compiled, and the World Happiness Report ranks the countries from the most happy to the least happy. The survey allows people to see how other parts of the world live their lives and ways that countries can adjust and work towards improving policies to increase the happiness levels of the people living within them.
According to the latest results of the World Happiness Report, the happiest countries are:
- The Netherlands
- New Zealand
Qualities Associated With Happier Countries
So, what makes some countries so happy? Is it the fresh air, fine wine, or artisanal cheeses? Possibly. There are several factors that can contribute to a nation's stress levels and impact its overall happiness in one way or another.
According to research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the countries with the lowest stress rates tend to have:
- Lower poverty rates and poverty gaps
- Lower rates of income inequality
- Lower rates of violence against women
- Lower rates of housing overcrowding
- Lower rates of discrimination toward working mothers and lower rates of child marriage
- Higher rates of education
- Higher rates of employment across all levels of education
- Fewer hours per work week
- Higher rates of disposable income
Countries With the Lowest Levels of Life Satisfaction
Not every country is as happy as the next. And, although some places around the world report fairly high levels of life satisfaction, there are also places that report low levels, according to the results of the World Happiness Report.
Based on the report's findings, the countries with the lowest levels of life satisfaction are:
- Sierra Leone
Qualities Associated With Low Life Satisfaction
Just as there are several aspects associated with high levels of life satisfaction, there are also several elements that have been linked to low levels of life satisfaction. Many of these aspects are the reverse of the positive characteristics listed above, as well as some larger concepts that research has found to have an impact.
The Country's Financial State
Both personal and national economic conditions play a large role in stress rates, as levels can increase during times of economic downturn. Worry over financial matters, fears of losing employment, and daily struggles to afford basic needs affect both individuals and entire nations.
In addition, research shows that people experience increased rates of stress when they are exposed to situations that are unpredictable, or where they have little to no control over the end result. Also, when a person experiences a lack of control over their life, they may be facing demands that are greater than their bandwidth, which can impact their ability to cope. This is just one reason why financial recessions or depressions can impact a person's mental health.
Higher Rates of Poverty
It may not come as a surprise, but poverty has been linked to higher rates of stress. It can be difficult for a person to feel satisfied with their life if they are worried about being able to make the necessary payments each month to keep them and their loved ones safe.
Financial stress is associated with food insecurity, which has been linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and even more stress. In addition, poverty also affects access to coping resources, which often means that the people that are the most stressed receive the least amount of help due to cost barriers.
Poverty also affects a person's physical health. Studies show that people with lower incomes have higher rates of stress-related brain activity and are at a greater risk of developing diseases, such as heart disease, as well as inflammation. In addition, they are at a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke and often have reduced access to healthcare.
Housing Insecurity and Unaffordability
Not being able to find a home, or not being able to comfortably afford the place you are living in can create stress. Homes are stable environments that offer people privacy and protection. However, when a person is dealing with housing insecurity or unaffordability, also known as housing stress, it can lead to psychological strain.
Many people dealing with housing stress fear displacement from their current homes due to rising prices. And, it can force people to move into less safe areas due to prices being more affordable.
Lower Rates of Education
Lower rates of education have been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, affective disorders, and other health concerns. In addition, low education rates have been associated with higher levels of work stress, because people often have fewer job prospects, receive less pay, have less control or stability in their work environment, and often do more physical, demanding labor.
This is what's known as a social gradient, where higher levels of work stress are reported for people in more disadvantaged socioeconomic positions. For these reasons, lower education levels have also been linked to lower levels of health.
Research has started to link work stress to the wider political context of the country. Studies find that factors such as favorable working conditions, investment in policies that promote employee growth, unemployment benefits, and other protections have been shown to act as a stress buffer in these situations.
Higher Rates of Unemployment
When a person doesn't have a steady, safe, or fairly paid job, it can lead to stress. Especially since unemployment has been associated with financial strain and loneliness.
Not only can high unemployment rates negatively affect your mental health, but the strain they bring is also associated with physical health consequences. For example, unemployment has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke and can add to a person's overall stress levels. And, people with lower levels of education often experience higher rates of distress due to unemployment.
Decreased Rates of Social Support
Lack of support from loved ones is also associated with increased stress levels. It can be beneficial and comforting to have a friend or family member to turn to whenever you need help with a simple task or just want someone to talk to.
Social support can act as a stress buffer because loved ones help people cope with whatever they are going through. When a person feels isolated, or as though they have no one to turn to for comfort, it can lead to increased rates of stress, as well as other mental health concerns.
Increased Rates of Pollution
Smog, noise, crowding, and poor sanitation can all contribute to increased stress levels. Research has found that long-term exposure to air pollution has detrimental effects on a nation's population, negatively affecting health, happiness, and life expectancy.
In addition, air pollution in particular has been linked to decreased brain health, an increased rate of developing mental health conditions, and even cognitive decline. Specifically, air pollution has been linked to increased rates of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
There are several aspects of life that can be stressful. And, sometimes these elements can be so impactful that they can affect the life satisfaction of an entire country. The good news is that the more people know about the negative mental and physical consequences of stress, the more ways people and governments can create policies to enact real change and increase the happiness of everyone, no matter their country.