The United Nations issues lots of important, if not exactly scintillating, reports. Then there is the annual World Happiness Report, released last week.

This one consistently sparks interest beyond the usual coterie of diplomats and foreign-policy wonks. Happiness is a universal aspiration.

This year we learn that happiness, like another precious commodity, oil, is not evenly distributed across the globe. Some nations are awash in bliss (see: Denmark), others bone dry (see: Burundi).

Every year, happiness rankings capture our imagination. Like sports scores, everyone wants to know how the home team fared. (The United States, according to the United Nations, ranks 13th out of 157 countries.)

Do these rankings really mean anything? Not if you’re a happiness researcher, it turns out.

“For us, that’s the least important data,” said John F. Helliwell, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia and one of the new report’s co-authors.

What really intrigues Dr. Helliwell and other happiness researchers is not where people are happy but why. The U.N. report identifies six key factors: G.D.P. per capita, life expectancy, social support, trust, generosity and perceived freedom to make life decisions. Read More