UK bowler hats
The UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but only 19th place in the UN World Happiness Report Reuters

A report on global 'happiness' sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing that might emanate from a religious cult, or be lauded by people who wear hemp clothes and carry crystals around in their pockets.

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you can only find time to fret about happiness once you have enough food in your stomach, a roof over your head and presumably enough money to stop the bailiffs from darkening your door. Thus the obsession with happiness has always felt like a bit of a middle-class indulgence – happiness sort of takes care of itself if you create the material conditions for it to flourish.

That said, I've had something of a change of heart: the so-called World Happiness Report, released to coincide with the United Nation's International Day of Happiness, is actually rather good.

Not least because the report recognises that happiness is intimately bound up with poverty and inequality (material rather than vacuous 'spiritual' factors). It also touches on the atomisation that characterises so much of modern capitalism. The happiness report may sound lightweight but it reveals deeper truths. Not least that GDP, the primary obsession of politicians and policymakers, is not nearly enough when it comes to increasing general dopamine levels.

The report itself looks at six areas in determining whether a country is 'happy' or not. These are GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support (as measured by having a friend to rely on in difficult times), trust (an absence of corruption in business and politics), freedom and generosity (as measured by recent donations).

The top 10 countries do well on all six of these. Last year Norway finished in fourth place but this year it took the top spot. It was closely followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. Both the US and the UK do OK, sitting in fourteenth and nineteenth place respectively.

Additionally, those in professional, well paid jobs were found to be happier and more satisfied with their lives than those working in manual jobs. Thus that remark you sometimes hear from tourists who've visited poor countries that 'the people seem happier, despite the poverty' doesn't stand up.

There is nothing noble about being poor and the supposed 'dignity' of manual labour is the sort of idea that only someone with too much money and material comfort can truly believe in.

The question I suspect most people will be asking about the report, though, is: what does our own government have to do for all of us to become happier?

According to the findings at least, we ought to be more like Norway. We knew this to some extent already: the way in which Norway was invoked by those who wanted to take Britain out of the European Union was itself a revealing nod to the perceived desirability of the Scandinavian model of government.

Ironically, many of the free marketeers who disingenuously cited Norway as a model that Britain might aspire to follow will invariably decry the happiness report. There aren't, after all, many low regulation paradises competing over the champions league spots in the happiness premier league. Switzerland is the most noticeable exception to that rule sitting in fourth place, but the top 10 is dominated by countries which effectively balance social justice with a high level of personal freedom.

It is good social democratic governance that seems to make people happy. And while we were told by the Brexiteers that Britain could replicate the happiest country in the world if only we voted to leave the EU, it increasingly looks like the government is intent on leading us toward something that more closely resembles those countries lower down the index: a low tax, low spending economic model where we sweat to boost GDP while services like social care are starved of the money required to alleviate other causes of unhappiness like social isolation.

It is, therefore, worth keeping an eye on this country's place in the happiness index as Britain moves even further away from the Scandinavian ideal in the coming years.

On the face of it, we should, as a nation, be relatively happy. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, our politics is not particularly corrupt, and we are relatively free. But I suspect the reason Britain sits only nineteenth in the World Happiness Report has something to do with the way that freedom is commonly interpreted in this country: whereas Norwegian politicians recognise that a good society comes at a price.

But I suspect the reason Britain sits only nineteenth in the World Happiness Report has something to do with the way that freedom is commonly interpreted in this country: whereas Norwegian politicians recognise that a good society costs money, and that individual freedom is curtailed by poverty and nepotism, we interpret 'freedom' as the one-dimensional right to avoid as much income and inheritance tax as possible. Your right to live in a decent society is trumped by my disinclination to want to dip my hand in my pocket to pay for it.

And so rather than being an exercise in vacuous uplift, the Happiness Report does confirm something many of us will have suspected already: happiness depends to some extent on one's willingness to pay for it.

There is just as much happiness swilling around in Britain as in any other well-developed country. It is simply distributed about as unevenly as the wealth on which it so often depends.