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5 Lessons from the World's Biggest Happiness Study

They're counterintuitive but they'll improve your life (featuring my favorite life rule).

5 Lessons from the World's Biggest Happiness Study

Summary of today’s post:

  • We’re covering five big findings from the World Happiness Report—one of the world’s most extensive happiness studies—and what you can learn from them.

  • You’ll learn:

    • Surprising and nuanced findings on how being social impacts happiness. (It’s not as simple as “spend more time with others.”)

    • How to leverage the once-a-month rule of helping others.

    • How to use technology to improve happiness.

    • A common happiness trap and how to get out of it.

    • Why happiness can be a counterproductive goal, and what actually leads to happiness.

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Let’s roll …

The United Nations and Oxford just released the 2024 World Happiness Report.

It’s an annual study of epic proportions that dives into world happiness. It studies:

  • What leads to happiness.
  • How happiness is changing globally.
  • What we can do to be happier.

First, some bad news: For the first time in the report’s 12-year history, the United States fell out of the top 20 rankings.

The country dropped from 16 last year to 23 this year, just behind the United Arab Emirates (a country without formal democracy or free speech). Not great!

Here’s how the top 25 happiest country rankings have changed since 2021.

Credit: Axios.

Now some good news: World Happiness Reports going back to 2012 contain wide and deep streams of wisdom on happiness.

No matter the ranking of the country we live in, we as individuals can apply the reports’ lessons to our lives to live better—and happier.

Here are five strong and sometimes counterintuitive happiness findings from the reports:

1. Find ride-or-die friends

Section summary

Feeling like you have “social support,” or people who have your back, is powerful for boosting happiness. It beats in-person interactions and can outweigh the costs of loneliness.

The details

We all know loneliness is up and that in-person interactions can help counter it.

But that doesn’t mean that just putting yourself out in front of others will automatically improve your happiness.

I wrote these somewhat flip lines in 2020 in The Comfort Crisis:

A growing wave of government reports and popular books, podcasts, and TED Talks are calling attention to the loneliness problem and giving advice to be less lonely. The messages are essentially, “get out there with a positive attitude, buddy! Work at a coffee shop or library! Go to a party or concert! Join a softball team or running club! Talk to strangers!”

These methods are probably helpful and we should surely all work on building strong human bonds. But I’m also skeptical of the idea that, like, some Coors-swilling guy who plays shortstop for a softball team I signed up for could ever provide me with real emotional support or insight into myself.

More research suggestings I was onto something.

There’s a powerful third element of the sociality/happiness riddle we often overlook: feeling like we have people who support us.

The scientists wrote, “Both social support and loneliness affect happiness, with social support usually having the larger effect.”

This partly explains why the study found older adults were happier than younger people on average. From the report:

In all global regions … the oldest members of the population, those in the boomer and earlier generations, feel more socially supported and less lonely than those in the younger generations despite having less frequent actual interactions with all groups except neighbors.

This ability to gain more perceived support with fewer interactions likely helps to explain why life satisfaction so often rises after middle age even as the frequency and seriousness of health problems increases.

Of course, positive social interactions with anyone boosts happiness and reduces loneliness. So it’s great to chase those.

But, as I wrote in Scarcity Brain, “Research and common sense suggest it’s better to have one great friend you truly care about and can count on than a million mediocre ones.”


Get yourself at least one ride-or-die friend. Developing these relationships takes more time and effort.

The following can help you build great friends you truly care about and can count on:

  • Be open and honest and don’t worry how you come across to the other person. If they don’t like who and how you are, they’re probably not a great fit.
  • Show up. Answer the call or text. Help the other person. Provide support, and the other person will, too. If they don’t, they’re not a great fit.
  • Take on challenges together. Going through hardship with others—whether organic or manufactured—can build trust and bonds.

2. Follow the once-a-month rule of helping others

Section summary

Helping others helps your happiness. But in-person volunteering at least once a month is most potent.

The details

The research consistently shows that if you float someone else’s boat, your own boat will rise.

A ~20-year study found that people who volunteered in the past year were not only happier, but also healthier.

Note: The study results weren’t just because happy people are more likely to volunteer. People who started volunteering became happier over time—and those who were the least happy actually got the biggest boost.

But not all help is equal. The 2019 World Happiness Report found that we get the most happiness when the way we help others ticks three boxes:

  1. We feel free to choose whether or how to help. (Not guilted into it.)
  2. We feel connected to and care about who we’re helping.
  3. We can see our help making a difference.

Which leads to a vital takeaway …


Donating money to charity is great, and we should all do it if we have the means.

But helping others in person seems to be better for us. A study in Frontiers in Psychology found, “Volunteering, compared to charitable donations, had a slightly stronger association with psychological well-being.”

This is likely because helping in person allows us to tick all three boxes.

So how often should you help? Follow the once-a-month rule of helping others. In the 20-year study, people who volunteered once a month saw the biggest happiness boost.

3. Scroll better

Section summary

The drop in happiness in the USA is largely due to the falling happiness levels of young people (good news: our older people are doing great). Doomscrolling is a key cause—but there’s a way out.

The details

When this year’s World Happiness Report separated in-country happiness levels by age group, they discovered why the U.S. dropped out of the top 20.

This shows that our young people rank 62nd in happiness while our older people rank 10th. The drop in youth happiness pulled us out of the top 20.

Canada experienced a similar phenomenon, with its young ranking 58th and old ranking 8th.

Smartphones are tools. How we use them determines their impacts on us.

But, particularly in the US and Canada, younger age groups don’t seem to be using tech in a way that helps their happiness.

Young people not only spend more time on apps that don’t seem to improve happiness, they’re also more deeply effected by those apps. Read about the brain on smartphones here.

But this applies to everyone, with more time on certain apps generally pulling down happiness.


Using technology in a way that helps happiness isn’t always easy because the apps that hurt us are designed to deliver short-term pleasure.

Using them less takes hard work (much like quitting any addictive behavior). You’ll go through a withdrawal effect, but your life will eventually get better.

Read more on the smartphone withdrawal effect and how to push through it here.

Go deeper:

4. Exit the scarcity loop of happiness

Section summary

Develop an ethical framework. Place it over money and possessions—and follow it.

The details

St. Thomas Aquinas noted that everything we do is ultimately to be happy.

But we often do the wrong things—when we’re unhappy it’s usually because we’re doing things that provide a fleeting hit of happiness yet ultimately distract or drag us down.

For example, we often think salary, purchases, a specific body fat percentage, or getting a fancy job title will finally make us happy.

But once we get that thing, the joy quickly fades and we start searching for the next thing we think will deliver permanent happiness. Repeat the cycle for life. It’s a scarcity loop of happiness.

It wasn’t always like this.

The 2013 World Happiness Report notes the way we think about happiness has changed over time. Those shifts haven’t always been a good thing.

The authors wrote:

In the great pre-modern traditions concerning happiness, whether Buddhism in the East, Aristotelianism in the West, or the great religious traditions, happiness is determined not by an individual’s material conditions (wealth, poverty, health, illness) but by the individual’s moral character. Aristotle spoke of virtue as the key to eudaimonia, loosely translated as “thriving.” Yet that tradition was almost lost in the modern era after 1800, when happiness became associated with material conditions, especially income and consumption.


A certain level of income, possessions, and respect from others is necessary for happiness. And some of those metrics vary from country to country.

But once we reach them, there’s a diminishing rate of returns, and more can even backfire.

The 2013 report proposes four basic values countries should begin instilling.

These values can help you at the individual level. They come down to the following:

  • Be kind to others and the environment. (Call this the Don’t Be a Dick Principle).
  • Be honest, fair, and reliable. (Golden rule type stuff).
  • Tolerate others and their beliefs. (Be open-minded and don’t discriminate).
  • Help others—take a “rising tide floats all boats” attitude. (See item two).

5. Stop chasing happiness

Section summary

You can’t always be happy—and trying to be might make you miserable.

Start viewing happiness as a rolling average of your behavior rather than a destination.

The details

We seem to think that happiness is a destination. Like our internal and external conditions will be perfect, and that we’ll be able to finally “arrive” and rest once we reach this place called happiness. This is a delusion.

While researching this post, I came upon a piece in the New York Times looking at why America fell out of the top 20. That story included Eric Weiner as a source. He’s a journalist who’s written about happiness in different countries. He told the times:

Part of the problem is that we have this huge expectation of happiness in America and so we suffer partly from the unhappiness of not being happy and the expectation that we should be happy. And not every country in the world has that.

There’s an assumption that if you’re American, you’re wealthy and you’re high tech and you’re successful; you should be happy. There’s a lot of data that shows that the greater your expectations, the less you’re happy.

It’s important to realize that humans didn’t evolve to be happy. As I wrote in Scarcity Brain:

As we evolved, sustained happiness would have killed us. It would have been more of a bug than a feature in our mental hardware. If early humans were totally happy with our situation, we would … have given up fighting for survival and died off.

This is why neuroscientists in the UK say there’s no biological basis for sustained happiness. They wrote, ‘a state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.’

Those scientists noted, “pretending that any degree of (dissatisfaction) is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration.” Given our wiring, they write, “dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. Far from it. (It is) what makes you human.”


I’m happier when I do two things:

  1. Think of happiness not as a destination but a rolling average of my behavior. If I simply do more of the things I know are good for me and others in the long-run and less of the things that aren’t, I experience more happiness.
  2. Follow Rule #62: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. Life is a grand comedy. This rule has given me a healthy perspective during life’s tough times. It helps me find humor in any moment—and that makes me happier.

Have fun, don’t die, follow Rule #62.


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