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Young people's happiness has 'fallen sharply' for Canada and U.S. in global rankings

Rankings based on countries' prosperity, social bonds and other factors

The latest edition of the World Happiness report shows people in Finland are first in overall happiness. Canada is in 15th place, down two spots from last year, while its younger people are way down the rankings in a newly added category.

Finland has the world's happiest people for the seventh year in a row, according to the report released Wednesday to mark the UN's International Day of Happiness. The report is powered by data from the Gallup World Poll and analyzed by a global team led by the University of Oxford.

Following in order for overall contentment are those living in Denmark, Iceland and Sweden, based on factors linked to a country's prosperity, as well as life expectancy, social bonds or having someone to count on, and freedom from corruption.

Rounding out the top 10 are Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Australia.

For the first time in the 12-year history of the survey, the United States is out of the top 20, falling to 23rd place, down from 15th last year, due to a big drop in the sense of wellbeing of Americans under 30, the annual report shows.

Life satisfaction from young to old

Separate rankings by age group were compiled for the first time for the report, and there were worrying findings for both the U.S. and Canada.

In most countries, life satisfaction typically drops gradually from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, the authors said, and people aged 15 to 24 are still reporting greater life satisfaction than older adults, the authors said.

But the happiness age gap is narrowing in Western Europe and recently reversed in North America due to falling life satisfaction among the young under the age of 30, it said. Conversely, in sub-Saharan Africa, life satisfaction has increased among the young.

"In North America, Australia and New Zealand, life evaluations in 2021-2023 were lowest among the young, rising gradually with age to be highest among the old. The age gap favouring the old is evident in all four countries, while being much larger in the United States and Canada," the report said.

Findings for people under the age of 30 showed Canada in 58th place, the U.S. in 62nd place and Mexico in 22nd place. Australia was 19th in the category and New Zealand was 27th.

Ages 60 and above

The report found that Lithuania tops the happiness list for people under 30, and that helped move the country up one spot in the top 20 for overall happiness.

Denmark, meanwhile, is the world's happiest country for those aged 60 and older, followed by Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and the U.S.

"In the West, the received wisdom was that the young are the happiest and that happiness thereafter declines until middle age, followed by substantial recovery," the authors said. However, they said happiness has "fallen sharply" in North America to a point where it's the other way around.

In contrast, the report said the young in Central and Eastern Europe are "much happier than the old." In Western Europe, as a whole, happiness is similar at all ages, it said.

Life expectancy higher in Scandinavian countries

"So wealth is one thing, but then there's also a healthy life expectancy, which is also very high in Scandinavian countries, whereas in other wealthy countries, like the United States, life expectancy is actually going down for certain segments of the population," Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a University of Oxford economics professor and one of the report's editors, told CBC News.

"And then, finally, something where Scandinavian countries really stand out, we find, is in terms of the social fabric, the social capital of their society. So people trust each other, they trust the institutions, there's social support available for them, both institutionally and personally, and we find that is less the case in other societies," he said.

The report said older age is associated with higher life satisfaction in India, "refuting some claims that the positive association between age and life satisfaction only exists in higher-income nations." However, it said older women in India report lower life satisfaction than older men.

The age gap in wellbeing is starkest in the United States, and also wide in Canada and Japan, and to a decreasing extent in France, Germany and Britain, which all lost ground in this year's rankings.

De Neve said a range of factors is likely lowering young people's happiness, including increased polarization over social issues, negative aspects of social media and economic inequality that make it harder for young people to afford their own homes than in the past.