Health and Healthcare Systems

Why wellbeing and happiness hold the key to a healthy ageing society in Japan

Japan came 54th in the UN's happiness rankings.

Japan came 54th in the UN's happiness rankings. Image: Unsplash

Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
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  • Japan has an opportunity to lead the world in solving the problems of ageing with better happiness and wellbeing scores.
  • With its shrinking workforce, the country is entering a period of societal change.
  • The country has an opportunity to build a happier, more fulfilled society.

An ageing population and declining birth rates are pressing issues facing countries around the world, and Japan is no exception. Increasingly, young people in Japan are concerned with their economic prospects and in many cases are choosing to prioritise career development over starting a family.

Japan's population is ageing at a rate unparalleled in other countries. According to the 2022 White Paper on Ageing Society, published by the Cabinet Office, Japan's population aged 65 and over currently stands at just over 36.21 million, accounting for 28.9% of the total population. This number is expected to peak at 3,935 by 2042.

Japan's social foundations are being challenged by a shrinking working population and rising social security costs. So, how can the country prepare for an era of rapid social structural change? And what is needed to create a society in which all people can live happy and healthy lives, both mentally and physically?

Why does Japan rank so low for happiness?

Let us go back to the definition of wellbeing as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1946: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” We need to think about creating a society that places wellbeing at its centre: “objective wellbeing” is something that can be measured in numbers, such as GDP or healthy life expectancy; while “subjective wellbeing” is an individual assessment of one’s own life fulfilment, happiness, and satisfaction.

According to the World Happiness Report 2022 released by the United Nations in March, Japan placed 54th, the lowest among the developed world. A closer look at the results shows that “freedom to make life choices” and “generosity” are notably low, while other items such as “GDP per capita”, “social support” and “healthy life expectancy” are not much different from the top-ranking countries.

In other words, while objective wellbeing is high, subjective wellbeing is low in Japan. The subjective wellbeing of each nation's citizens was also found to be low, with Japan at 1.487 points, compared to Finland's 2.518 points.

World Happiness Report 2022. Source: UN.
World Happiness Report 2022. Image: UN

There seems to be no doubt that two important issues in Japan are the realization that people have freedom of choice in their lives and tolerance for different positions and opinions. These are key to closing the happiness gap with the rest of the world.

Which factors could help boost Japan's rankings?

To gain a better understanding of subjective wellbeing among Japanese, we must also look at one of the longest-running studies on human happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The research project has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men from different economic and social backgrounds for 75 years beginning in 1938 to determine "what is truly needed to maintain happiness and health.”

The lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and happier. Period.

Dr Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychology, Harvard

It's the quality of our relationships that matters, not the number of them. The key to building warm human relationships is tolerance, the ability to show understanding for those opinions and positions which differ from one’s own. These factors could be part of the reason why Japanese people do not feel a real sense of affluence and happiness.

As we enter an era of declining birthrates and an ageing population over the next 50 years, we must envision a society in which all people can feel richness and happiness in their lives, while facing important global issues such as climate change, resource depletion, inequality and division.

Furthermore, we must build a society where richness and sustainability are compatible. Japan has an opportunity to lead the world in solving the problems of ageing and declining birth rates, whilst pioneering a society where every individual can experience happiness.

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