The Happiest People in the World

The happiest country in the world according to official rankings (2019) is Finland. Paradoxically, it also used to be the country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. However, this article suggests that the San Bushmen (who don’t have a country of their own) are the happiest people in the world. Could hunter-gatherers who live the harsh life our distant ancestors lived, really be the happiest people in the world? A life with a 50% chance of reaching reproductive age and adulthood probably won’t sound appealing to any of us. However, could there be reasons that San people aren’t happier than us, after all?

From the point of view of Evolutionary Psychology , permanent happiness is somewhat illusory. None of us would be here if our ancestors had spent all their time happily basking in the sun. To start with, we aren’t born happy, we are usually born crying. Babies cry all the time and not just because they are hungry. In our hunter-gatherer past the mortality rate in the first year was more than 25%. An unhappy infant would have made sure to have a caregiver around all the time and increased her survival chances.

Happiness across life stages -sometimes a rollercoaster ride

Our carefree childhood years, on the other hand, are meant to be some of our happiest: food and friends to play with are high up on the wish-list but not many other things matter. Adolescence, again isn’t a time of bliss, as this period was critical for reproduction in the past (much less so nowadays, but evolution is blind to the future). Once having found the partner to rear children with, there wasn’t much to worry about in early adulthood — that is, until the children started arriving. In fact, if there is a person unhappier than a teenager than it’s the parent of an unhappy teenager. Old age is a time during which — contrary to expectations — people get happier again (best spent in the company of grandchildren, from an evolutionary point of view).

Positive Psychology also has a lot to say about happiness. The most important factor for happiness is… not money…but healthy social relationships — to nobody’s surprise. Contrary, to what evolutionary psychology might predict, one finding of positive psychology was that people without children are happier than people with children. This is only an apparent paradox, however. People nowadays have the luxury to extend the worry-free child-free early adult years. This finding of positive psychology actually says more about our modern society (environment) than our evolved preferences regarding having children. In traditional societies having children is still considered a reason for joy and happiness.

The takeaway from combining evolutionary and positive psychology is that our evolved preferences do not match our environment anymore. Our search for status, independence and self-actualization make us lonelier and unhappier and leave us more frequently without offspring. From a purely biological point of view, you can work your way up to become a billionaire and still be a loser if you forgo reproduction.

Personality Psychology, finally tells us that happiness isn’t the same for all people. Out of the Big 5 personality traits, two consistently predict higher levels of happiness or unhappiness, namely extraversion and neuroticism , respectively. Which leaves us with the question of why evolution is so unfair and doesn’t make us equally happy? One explanation would be that extraversion and neuroticism are simply trade-offs: extraverts were more likely to have more sexual partners, but they are also more likely to die earlier due to higher risk-taking behaviour. On the flip side, individuals with increased neuroticism may have a harder time to attract a partner, but they are also more likely to worry more about their health, their children’s well-being, etc.

Taking the same logic to the next level: some ancestral environments might have shifted the balance to either side. I have argued before. that, in agreement with life-history theory pastoralist, who had the shortest lifespans, also had the highest levels of risk-taking and extraversion, whereas hunter-gatherers, who could expect to live longer than both herders and farmers, had the highest levels of cautiousness. People who have inherited neurotic hunter-gatherer minds tend to be the unhappiest ones in our society. Why? Hunter-gatherer minds are egalitarian and a world that is obsessed with status, power and money, often leaves them puzzled whether it is worthwhile having children in such an environment. Happiness is like a compass that tells people if life is going in the right direction. While it does for many “farmer” types, it often doesn’t for hunter-gatherer types. Neuroticism isn’t only correlated with unhappiness but also with mental illnesses (anxiety, depression, etc.), in particular in combination with childhood adversity. This leaves hunter-gatherer type children as the most vulnerable members of our society. These are the so-called “orchid children”. These are the children who are at risk of suicidal ideation during their teens and leading the unhappiest lives as adults. Modern hunter-gatherer minds are very often what is called “neurodiverse” nowadays.

Where can those hunter-gatherer minds be found? Nowadays they are a minority, but they are most likely to be found among people with a liberal and an extremely open mindset. In fact, trait openness correlates strongly with a liberal ideology, whereas trait conscientiousness correlates strongly with a conservative, “farmer” mindset. In fact, this explains the consistent finding that conservatives are happier than liberals.

While hunter-gatherer types in modern society are often among the unhappiest people, I think it isn’t that irrational to assume that the real hunter-gatherers (who are allowed to lead their traditional lifestyle) are among the happiest people on our planet, They live in accordance with their evolved happiness compass. Modern hunter-gatherer minds thrive best in liberal and low-aggression countries, like Finland. In modern societies, people are generally the happiest in places where there is a high degree of egalitarianism and a low degree of inequality, regardless of personality type.

Originally published at on May 26, 2020.