On Economics
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On Economics

How happy are Sri Lankans?

Reflections on the World Happiness Report 2019

Suspicious and Suspiciouser

On March 30th, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network published their World Happiness Report for 2019. Sri Lanka was ranked 130th out of 156 countries. I found this a little surprising. Are we that unhappy?

Digging a little deeper, things looked even more suspicious. Reputable hell-holes like Congo and Iraq were ranked above Sri Lanka. Were people actually happier in Congo or Iraq?

Sri Lanka was ranked 130th out of 156 countries.

This didn’t feel right. So I thought of investigating a little deeper.

Measuring World Happiness

According to Wikipedia, the World Happiness Report’s Happiness Score is computed as follows:

“The rankings of national happiness are based on a Cantril ladder survey. Nationally representative samples of respondents are asked to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale.The report correlates the results with various life factors.”

For example, when a representative sample of Sri Lankans were asked to current lives on a 0 to 10 ladder, the average answer was 4.366.

The authors then tried to explain the score, by correlating it to several life factors that were expected to influence happiness. These factors were:

  1. GDP per capita
  2. Social support
  3. Healthy life expectancy
  4. Freedom to make life choices
  5. Generosity
  6. Perceptions of corruption

The result of correlating the Happiness Score with the life factors was an equation like this:

Estimated “Happiness Score” = “Score Explained by GDP per capita” + “Score Explained by Social support” + “Score Explained by Healthy life expectancy” + “Score Explained by Freedom to make life choices” + “Score Explained by Generosity” + “Score Explained by Perceptions of corruption” + 1.88

Now, according to this linear function, the Estimated “Happiness Score” for Sri Lanka is something like:

Estimated “Happiness Score” = 0.559 + 0.949 + 1.26 + 0.831 + 0.470 + 0.244 + 0.047 + 1.88 = 5.687

What this means is, given Sri Lanka’s life factors, Sri Lanka’s Estimated “Happiness Score” should be 5.687. But this is more than Sri Lanka’s actual Happiness Score 4.366. In other words, the Sri Lankan’s interviewed “say” that their happiness was 4.366, but given “how things actually are” in Sri Lanka, it should be 5.687.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Pandits call this difference the Dystopia Factor. Sri Lanka has a particular negative Dystopia Factor of 1.321, implying that Sri Lankas say that they are much less happier with their current life situation than they should be given their real circumstances.

How things really are

I recomputed the Happiness Scores by removing the bizarre Dystopia Factor. “Say they are” are the “Happiness Scores” reported in the World Happiness Report. “Really are” is this score minus the Dystopia Factor.

“Say they are” are the “Happiness Scores” reported in the World Happiness Report. “Really are” is this score minus the Dystopia Factor.

While the macro pattern doesn’t change much (the top ranks are dominated by the “west” and the bottom ones by Africa), the countries that significantly changed ranks are interesting.

The countries with the 10 highest dystopia factors (where people “say” things are much worse than they “actually are”) are:

10 highest dystopia factors

Sri Lanka has the fourth highest Dystopia Factor. Under the “new scoring system”, Singapore moves from 34th place to 1st place. There is no obvious pattern in the other countries. Three of them are reasonably well performing African countries (Botswana, Rwanda, and Tanzania), three are South Asian neighbours with similar culture (Sri Lanka, India and Myanmar), and two small countries which are economically developed (Hong Kong and Singapore).

The countries with the 10 lowest dystopia factors (where things “actually are” much worse than people “say” they are) are:

10 lowest dystopia factors

As before, this list also has a mix of very different countries, including the “happiest country” Finland, according to the original World Happiness Report. It has four Central American Countries (Costa Rica, Mexico, El Salvador), and three African countries (Benin, Niger, and Ivory Cast).

A Philosophical Difference

The “Really are” and “Say they are” Happiness Scores have a subtle difference. In the latter, we assume that happiness is “what people say what happiness is”. In the former, we first find factors that seem to influence happiness, and then see how the people are doing on these factors.

The difference between these scores is, as I said, subtle. The former, though seems statistically more robust, and corrects for cultural nuances like modesty, and emotional humility.


There is some evidence that Sri Lankans tend to be more negative about their life situation and happiness. If we correct for this “Dystopia Factor” Sri Lanka’s happiness score improves from 130th to 63rd.

While the World Happiness Report is sensitive to life factors that influence happiness, they should probably do some further research into factors that influence the measurement of happiness.



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Nuwan I. Senaratna

Nuwan I. Senaratna

I am a Computer Scientist and Musician by training. A writer with interests in Philosophy, Economics, Technology, Politics, Business, the Arts and Fiction.