Congratulations! Danes Crowned the Happiest again. So What?

Click the picture to check the entire World Happiness Report 2016. Ranking of Happiness 2013–2015 is from page 13.

Reflections on Measuring Happiness

“Denmark has reclaimed its place as the world’s happiest Country” (The New York Times, March 16). Not surprisingly, Scandinavian and Nordic nations (including Canada)were topped, while some African countries (Syria, Togo, Afghanistan, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, etc) were placed at the bottom of the list. Are you happy with your life? Can you agree with the ranking? Do really Danish feel happier than people in the rest of the world? When asked how you’re doing, how many of us would respond, “bad”? Not really. Seriously, Denmark must be a good place to live in. What is happiness by the way? How do they measure happiness, the subjective phenomenon? In other words, measuring happiness and quantifying it seemed impossible because every person in this planet could answer differently when they are asked.

Despite all my lingering thoughts, quantifying happiness is possible. Although research has grown in the field of happiness research, some scholars claim that people’s subjective indicators are unreliable. Then, how do psychologists and scholars measure happiness? Quantifying happiness heavily relies on self-reporting. The World Happiness Report was based on both subjective and objective aspect of happiness.

People were asked to rate their subjective feelings about various aspects of their lives on a scale. For example, “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” mattered. In addition, the scholars calculated life scores in six categories. They were: gross domestic product per capita (GDP), life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption.

What is the matter with the World Happiness Report?

The goal of the study was “to help countries gauge how ready they are ready to pursuing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include ending poverty and hunger, increasing healthcare and the quality of education, reaching gender equality,” like humanitarian goals that would improve living condition in the world. There was a lot of year-to-year consistency in the way people rate their lives in different countries. The top 10 countries in 2016 were the same countries that had been top-ranked in the report 2015. The scholars of the study suggested that people be happier when inequalities were attenuated. Besides, there were many interesting findings in the World Happiness Report. Yet, I was interested in methodology taken upon this research.

Now, Some of Questions I have are:

According to the team, 2000 to 3000 people were participated per country, and they said “the sample size of 2000 to 3000 is large enough to give a good estimate at the national level.” How did they select people in a nation? Did all the 156 countries provide the same amount of data? Another questions I had was, as an expat who lives for a long time in Canada, I was curious to know how they chose participants in heterogeneous countries like Canada and America, etc. How well represented the struggles such as minorities and immigrant populations. Moreover, I am still skeptical as to how much economics does drive happiness. You may have heard famous adage, “we have become substantially richer but not happier.” The World Happiness Report relied heavily on tangible measures. Could this skew results and findings? You may have read this somewhere that Bhutan, ranked at top in 2010, has pursued the goal of “gross national happiness” since 1972. The Bhutan government tracked cultural diversity, cultural resilience, quality of governance and community vitality. However, according to the report, the nation ranked 83 in global individual evaluation scores with top ranking in equitable socioeconomic development. No wonder they are happier. I was a bit startled to find the ranks of Bhutan and America. We keep hearing that American’s anger, tiredness and disappointment about politicians, and inequality regarding social infra structure, yet they ranked 13. Prosperity is a necessary condition for happiness, but not equal.

Smiling School children in Bhutan. Picture: Ryanne Lai

At the end of the day,

measuring happiness is an inherently difficult problem though possible. Psychologists and others has tackled this problem of measuring happiness in many ways and there has been progress in measuring happiness. By doing so, scholars reveal many things about happiness. Perhaps, happiness does not exist if people suffer with poverty, unemployment, psychological suppression. What does World Happiness Report show? It provides a meaningful indicator for economic well-being and underpinned the public policy of one country, but not account for every aspect of happiness. What makes you happy?