Measuring Happiness
June 23, 2014

Measuring Happiness

Happy can be an emotion, like when your team wins a big one, a dream comes true, or one of life’s simple pleasures wags your metaphorical puppy tail. Happy can be a value judgement, as in “I’m happy with the way you cooked that pasta, wrote that blog, or do your job.” The word happiness means different things in different circumstances and when a group of leading academics put together the “World Happiness Report 2013,” they had to make clear distinctions between the various meanings. How can happiness be measured? In July 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution inviting member states to measure the happiness of their populations. The idea was that the findings would drive public policy. In 2012, the UN held a meeting on “happiness and well-being” and the first “World Happiness Report” was published. The OECD has set international standard guidelines for measuring well-being. Standards for happiness? Seems like a tough call to me. How would it account for old grumps like me? I mean, sometimes it’s just great to be miserable. Some of us like nothing better than a good moan. Still, let’s give the UN the benefit of the doubt — let’s assume that measuring happiness can help make the world a better place.

So what does the report conclude? First of all, if you want to be happy, it seems you probably don’t want to live in Rwanda, Benin, Burundi, or the Central African Republic, as these countries are propping up the bottom of the list of 156 nations that took part. And you definitely wouldn’t want to live in Togo, which came last.

Scandinavia was highly rated on the happiness scale, with Denmark being the place where more people described themselves as being happy than anywhere else. Sweden and Norway were also in the top five. The US came in at number 17, while the UK was number 22. The report identified various factors that drive perceptions of happiness. These include a lot of fairly predictable elements, such as average life expectancy, the amount of GDP per capita, the provision of social support, levels of corruption, freedom in making life choices, and the attitudes of other citizens in things like generosity. Income inequality is also thought to be a major factor.

Clearly being relatively affluent in a stable country with good support networks is going to help make people feel happier, but what, other than the absence of those things, makes people unhappy? The report was based on a worldwide Gallop poll and it identified that the single most important cause of unhappiness is mental illness. Around ten percent of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression or severe anxiety disorders. The cost in terms of human misery is compounded by what the report identifies as the huge economic costs resulting from lost workdays and disability. It points out that effective treatments have a 50 percent success rate and, therefore, a “low or zero net cost after the savings they generate.” The case for improved mental healthcare seems undeniable.

The conclusion of the study is that global policy should be “more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves [characterize] their lives.” It also sends a positive message in that trends appear to be moving in the right direction due to “continuing improvements in most supports for better lives,” even in Sub-Saharan nations where the cluster of countries at the wrong end of the list are found. Yet setting global policy to reflect the myriad ways in which billions of individuals “characterize their lives” seems to be the most impossible of dreams.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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