What does it take to make a healthy, happy society?
How about a dose of Norway.
A smattering of Italy.
And a dash of Canada.
According to recent reports, all three of these countries have strengths that make them great places to live.
And good examples for other countries searching for health as well as happiness.
Norway is happiest country
This year Norway topped the United Nations’ World Happiness Report — although it was in a statistical dead heat with Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland.
All four countries ranked high for factors known to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.
They, and the other top 10 countries, also scored well for longevity, strong social networks and trust. The last one refers to an absence of corruption in business and government.
Norway does have an advantage over some less-happy countries — steady income from oil production and one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.
This allows the government to fund programs that help keep Norwegians happy — like its cradle-to-grave assistance programs.
But it may be how Norway handles its wealth that matters most.
Even when oil prices sag, Norway is still able to ride it out “by choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present,” says the report.
The United States, in spite of being known as an economic powerhouse, has dropped in recent years. It landed in the 14th spot this year.
The U.N. report cites declining social support and an increase in corruption as eroding America’s happiness.
The report also offers the United States as “a vivid portrait of a country that is looking for happiness ‘in all the wrong places.’”
The country’s focus on raising the rate of economic growth — through tax cuts and deregulation — “will increase inequality, social tensions, and the social and economic divide between those with a college degree and those without,” write the authors.
Mental health drives happiness
There’s a stark contrast between the top 10 countries and those at the bottom — which includes places like war-torn Syria and the Central African Republic.
In spite of that, the report points out that happiness also varies greatly within many countries.
Unemployment and income inequality account for some of these differences, especially in poorer countries.
But in all countries mental health is a stronger factor than physical health for why some citizens are happy and others are not.
In Western countries like the United States, “diagnosed mental illness emerges as more important than income, employment or physical illness,” write the authors of the report.
Max Strom, yoga health and wellbeing teacher and author of the book “There is No App for Happiness,” might agree.
“The way to really find out if someone is happy is not to ask them on the street with a camera in their face because most likely they’ll not tell you the truth,” said Strom. “The real way is to ask what medications are they are taking.”
Strom points to the high use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications by Americans — the United States outranks all other countries on this, according to a report by Business Insider.
In his book, Strom talks about how technology gets in the way of real happiness, which he defines as finding meaning in our lives.
In particular, studies have shown that using social media can make you unhappy.
“Instead of being social in person with people, we will go online,” said Strom, “whether it’s on our phone or on some other device.”
But these relationships lack the non-verbal communication that comes in a face-to-face interaction. Which leaves us wanting more.
“We’re starving for intimacy, even though we’re constantly in contact with people,” said Strom.
Health spending doesn’t equal health
Research is finding links between happiness and health.
But living in an unhappy country doesn’t always mean being unhealthy.
Take Italy, for example.
It ranked 48th on the U.N.’s World Happiness Report, but it is number one for health on the Bloomberg Global Health Index of 163 countries.
This report looks at variables that include life expectancy, causes of death and health risks such as smoking, obesity and pollution.
Part of Italy’s health success stems from a Mediterranean diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruit, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil.
Diet may even trump healthcare spending.
Italy spends only 9 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare.
The United States spends 17 percent of its GDP but ranked 34th on Bloomberg’s list.
This is due in part to more than two-thirds of the adult Americans being overweight or obese, a risk factor for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
America’s fragmented healthcare system may also be depressing the country’s health.
A recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that Canadians with cystic fibrosis can expect to live into their 50s. In the United States, they may only reach their 40s.
This inherited disorder affects the lungs, intestines, pancreas and other organs. It has no cure.
According to the New York Times, Canadians with cystic fibrosis had a similar risk of early death as Americans with private insurance coverage.
But compared to people with cystic fibrosis in the United States who had Medicaid, patients in Canada had a 44 percent lower risk of early death.
Other socioeconomic factors may be involved, but insurance coverage remains a top concern for Americans with cystic fibrosis.
Access to care and life-saving medications — things that people in countries like Canada take for granted — can have a big impact on health, especially with serious and chronic medical conditions.