Malta might be politically divided and its size a recipe for claustrophobia but according to a recently published study the Maltese are among the happiest people in the world.

Malta, Denmark and Switzerland polled eight points out of 10 on the happy barometer, to top a worldwide list compiled for research carried out by Dutch professor Ruut Veenhoven of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

For the past 20 years, Prof. Veenhoven, 62, the world's only professor of social conditions for human happiness, has been collecting every scrap of reliable research from around the globe relating to life satisfaction. The research has spawned The World Database of Happiness, a collection of more than 8,000 findings from 120 countries.

Divided into two parts, it rates the happiness of 90 nations on a scale of 0 to 10 based on 2,498 general population surveys carried out between 1946 and 2004. The latest figures have taken into consideration the recent Eurobarometer surveys. However, this database is not limited to findings that reached authorised publications - "grey" reports and mere datafiles are included as well.

The second part contains 8,496 findings of the correlation between happiness and factors as diverse as marriage, weight and intelligence.

Contacted by The Times, Prof. Veenhoven said there were several reasons why the Maltese topped the polls on the happy factor. Residents of small countries traditionally had more peace of mind, possibly because democracies were stronger, he said.

"I know about the political turbulence in Malta but, still, it doesn't result in some overly decisive issue which affects people's happiness. Malta has a lot of freedom, it's part of the Western world and this is an important factor," he said.

Switzerland, for example, is considered to be one of the most democratic countries in the world because it holds several referenda.

Iceland and Ireland come in at joint second with 7.8 and Ghana, surprisingly, places third with 7.7 points. Canada, Guatemala, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden are at joint fourth with 7.6 points. Finland and Mexico follow at joint fifth, with 7.5 points.

With a score of 7.2, the UK is joint eighth with El Salvador and Honduras, behind Belgium with 7.3, and just ahead of Germany with 7.1.

The former Soviet bloc countries hover around the bottom (Estonia 5.2; Latvia 4.8; Lithuania 4.9; Ukraine 3.6), just above Tanzania, 3.2 and Zimbabwe, 3.3.

Most scores are based on responses to the following question: "All things considered, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life as a whole now?"

The main qualities seen as leading to a good life are economic affluence, freedom and justice. These are factored in with the differences in economic development between countries. Income equality and generous social security do not appear to be required for a happy and long life.

Prof. Veenhoven estimates that education and income relates to about five per cent of someone's happiness but it is intimate relationships that are considered to have a significant impact on our joy. The Maltese evidently rank highly on the relationship front.

Interestingly, a high number of the happiest countries are depressingly cold. Prof. Veenhoven said one explanation for this was cultural - persons in colder climates are seen to work together more than the ones in warmer countries.

Judging by Prof. Veenhoven's studies, married people are happier. But the research shows that children do not add to happiness. The presence of children detracts from the quality of marriage, he said.

Young women aged 15 - 30 tend to be happier than young men. But after the age of 40 or 50, men tend to be happier.

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