When the United Nations General Assembly begins in two weeks, topics of economic and social development will most certainly be on the agenda. But improving such issues might not be based on each country’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which rationalizes that all citizens of a country can benefit from increased economic production. Instead, self-reported well-being could be a better measurement of how prosperous a country is, according to authors of the United Nations World Happiness Report, which ranked over 150 countries in terms of happiness.

“There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their well-being,” Professor Jeffery D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement. “More and more world leaders are talking about the importance of well-being as a guide for their nations and the world. The World Happiness Report offers rich evidence that … happiness can teach us a lot about ways to improve the world’s well-being.”

The World's Happiness

The report focuses on six determinant factors, which it says account for more than three-quarters of the differences in happiness scores, according to CBC News. They were:

· GDP per capita

· Life expectancy

· Perception of national corruption

· Freedom to make life choices

· Generosity of fellow citizens

· Someone to rely on during difficult times

Experts in fields, including economics, psychology, and survey analysis, worked on the study, which took data from the Gallup World Poll, surveying 156 countries worldwide from 2005 to 2010. Denmark ranked happiest, followed by Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The United States came in 17th, and Rwanda, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Benin, and Togo, all ranked lowest, USA Today reported.

Jens Norlem, a citizen of Denmark, told CBC News that his country leads the rankings probably because “it’s a very equal country. There’s not a lot of very rich people and there’s not a lot of very poor people. There’s a very big group of middle class, and people have a high level of education, so people participate very much in elections and stuff like that.”

Peace of mind is another factor, he said, comparing the U.S. to Denmark. “You feel that you have confidence in the system — in the governmental system, and in other people also. It’s a very typical thing here that if you walk up to people in the street and ask them a question, they’ll try to help. They wouldn’t think, ‘Who is this person coming up to me? He’s probably trying to rob me.’”

The report also noted that over the five-year course, 60 countries had large increases in happiness ranking, while 40 drastically decreased. Latin American countries’ happiness rose seven percent from 2007, whereas countries hit by political turmoil — the Arab Spring — and those hit by economic crisis, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece, showed declines by up to 11.7 percent.

One Major Way To Improve Happiness

Policy makers will be able to use the report to better understand what causes unhappiness and to rectify those problems. “Mental health is the single most important determinant of individual happiness (in every case where this has been studied),” the authors wrote. The National Institutes of Health defines mental health as an emotional, psychological, and social well-being, affecting how we think, feel, act, and cope with life. People's mental health determines how they go about everyday activities, including the ability to study, work, or pursue leisure interests. But about 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression or other anxiety disorders, the report says, and even in highly-advanced countries, only one-third of those who are ill receive treatment.

“They are biggest single cause of disability and absenteeism, with huge costs in terms of misery and economic waste … Moreover, human rights require that treatment should be available for mental illness as it is for physical illness,” the authors wrote.

The report suggests two main focal points for combating mental health disorders: providing better health care and social support for mentally ill adults, and intervening earlier — half of adults who are mentally ill see the symptoms of illness by the age of 15. But at most, only 15 percent of any government’s budget goes toward mental health services, while a much larger amount goes toward physical health care.

“It is reasonable to expect that treatment is as available for mental illness as it is for physical illness," the authors wrote. “This is a basic matter of equity and human rights.”