State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Data Visualization: World Happiness Trends

The World Happiness Report uses survey data, demographic information and statistical analysis to rank 156 nations according to the happiness of their people. A country’s overall happiness score is a composite of different factors including GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy and perceptions of corruption. This visualization charts happiness scores with six independent datasets to explore possible trends that might also contribute to a country’s happiness. Start: Military Spending »


  • Mouse over circles for country data
  • Press Freedom Index uses inverted scale (higher score = less freedom)
  • Linear regression lines illustrate general statistical trends in data
  • Indicator data may not be available for all countries


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Military Spending as Percent of Government Spending

Devastation in Raqqa, SyriaDevastation in Raqqa, Syria. Source:

Military spending has become a pillar of many large industrialized economies, but the overall happiness of a nation trends lower the more its government spends on defense. The happiest nations in the 2019 World Happiness Report, clustered in Northern and Western Europe, devote an average of just 2.8 percent of their budgets to the military. In contrast, the United States allocates 8.8 percent of its budget to defense. In fact, the U.S. has the world’s largest military budget, totaling more than $1.7 trillion in annual spending – almost three times more than China, which has the second largest military budget. Though outlier Saudi Arabia spends 30 percent of government funds on its military, it maintains a relatively high happiness score due to other social indicators. Unsurprisingly, conflict-torn areas such as Syria and Yemen have significant military expenditures and low happiness scores. All three of these Western Asian nations experienced steep drops in their happiness score in this year’s report.

Could redirecting funds from the military to social services increase a nation’s happiness? Recent evidence supports the trend that military spending doesn’t correlate with increased quality of life. Conversely, nations that spend more social services are on balance happier. According to a recent article, cutting U.S. military spending to European levels could provide enough funds to care for all elderly Americans or wipe out student debt.

Percent of Women in National Government

Rwandan women in governmentRwandan women in government. Source: Rwanda Government

Women have made significant inroads into national governments over recent decades, but they still make up just 24 percent of parliaments worldwide. More women in government may not just be good for a country’s happiness — they may also be good for its health. Researchers recently found that mortality rates declined in Canada as more women entered the government, linking the trend to increased cooperation and funding of health initiatives.

Women assumed a major role in Rwandan politics after its devastating genocide in 1994, and today over 60 percent of Rwanda’s government is composed of women, the highest in the world. Rwanda consistently ranks among the least corrupt African countries, but its overall happiness score reflects the economic, health and social struggles found in other sub-Saharan nations. Bolivia has also made strides in women’s participation in government over recent years, but gender discrimination and harassment remain stubborn issues.

Mean Annual PM2.5 Exposure

Los Angeles air pollutionLos Angeles air pollution. Source: NOAA Research News

A primary measure of air pollution, PM2.5 are small particles that can travel deep into airways and contribute to health problems such as heart disease and asthma. The World Health Organization estimates that today 91 percent of people worldwide are exposed to more than its annual guideline of 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air. The ten happiest nations in the World Happiness Report also have some of the cleanest air, with an average annual PM2.5 exposure of 9.1 mg/m3.

Many Asian nations suffer disproportionately from air pollution due to biomass burning, vehicle emissions, power generation and other sources. Researchers recently found that air pollution in Chinese cities took a toll on people’s happiness in addition to their health. In India, home to some of the world’s largest and smoggiest cities, air pollution killed an estimated 1.24 million people in 2017.

Freedom of the Press

Liberian election newspapersLiberian election newspapers. Source: USAID

Freedom of the press is a pillar of democracy and a robust news media helps ensure that a government is accountable to its people. The countries of Latin America collectively score well on press freedom; only Haiti and Venezuela are happiness outliers due to continuing economic and social struggles.

When it comes to media control, superpower China represents the cutting edge. President Xi Jinping’s government relies on new technologies to restrict the flow of information and both members of the press and the public can be jailed for their comments. If press freedom can indeed impact a nation’s overall happiness, then China’s model of state-controlled news may present a risk to other countries’ well-being. According to Reporters Without Borders, China’s repressive press policies are being adopted by some neighboring countries including Vietnam and Cambodia.

Income Inequality

GDP per capita, an informal measure of a nation’s prosperity, is an important factor in its overall happiness score. GDP per capita has risen steadily in the United States for decades, but so has income inequality. When adjusted for inflation, the median wage in America has remained stagnant since the 1970s while the share of total income going to the top one percent of earners has more than doubled. However, the detrimental effects of inequality are more pronounced in less prosperous nations. South Africa has the second largest economy in Africa, but it is also the most unequal country in the world. Poverty, unemployment, and the legacy of apartheid are persistent challenges to South Africa’s continued development. Many economists, politicians and academics today see increasing inequality as a potential threat to democracies worldwide. As the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Rail Density

A high-speed maglev trainA high-speed maglev train. Source:

If the concentration of railroad tracks in a country can be viewed as an indication of its overall development and commitment to mass transit, then nations with more trains tend to be happier. And when it comes to commuters, recent research seems to support this trend: in 2014 researchers at McGill University found that train commuters were happier than drivers or bus riders. With an average of 8.57 kilometers of rail track per square km, the industrialized nations of Western Europe score high both in happiness and rail density. Eastern Europe contains the entire rail density spectrum: Sprawling Russia has just 0.5 km/km2, while the Czech Republic tops the continent with 12 km/km2. Northern Europe is home to the happiest nations in the world, but their relatively low rail densities buck the trend. This discrepancy can potentially be attributed to regions with comparatively low population — and by extension railroad — densities.

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