Tag Archives: World Happiness Report

Celebrating the International Day of Happiness

One of the comments Twitter had a lot yesterday: ‘who decided that the International Day of Happiness would be on Monday’?

While Monday isn’t the least happy day of the week (it’s Wednesday), it may be a surprise that the first day of the new working week is the International Day of Happiness. But that was just the case this year: the day simply falls on 20 March, every year, forever.

It seems that interest in the day has picked up compared to when I wrote about it in 2014 and 2015. Via Twitter, I was flooded with articles and infographics about ways to be happy and happiness at work. That’s a great development, I’d say!

The World Happiness Report 2017

The publication of the World Happiness Report has become another regular fixture on the calendar of happiness enthusiasts (see my take in 2015 here). This year, its release coincided with the International Day of Happiness.

Looking at the results, there were a couple of surprises:

  • Norway narrowly overtook Denmark (1st in 2016 and also in 2014) as the happiest country in the data from 2014-2016. A very important disclaimer: the differences between these two and Iceland (3rd) Switzerland (4th, ranked 1st in 2015) are statistically insignificant. In brief, we don’t really know if Norwegians are really happier than the Swiss.
  • It remains mind-blowing how important equal societies, high trust (measured via perceptions of corruptions), and small populations are. Like last year, the rest of the top-10 is completed by Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Sweden.
  • The section on the United States recognises its decline. This is not a failure in attempts to Make America Great Again – though polarisation is probably part of the problem. Declining social support and a reduced trust are the factors associated with this. Jeffrey Sachs observes that the US ranked 3rd in the OECD in 2007, compared to 19th in 2016. Given the fact that GDP is still growing but happiness is in decline, it is imperative that the US works on its social crisis.
  • Also in China, the data show surprising results. China’s GDP per capita has seen a five-fold increase in 25 years. If money were to buy happiness, the levels of happiness and well-being should increase, especially for the millions of people who escaped poverty and came to form China’s new middle class. Instead, multiple studies reveal that happiness fell a bit in the 2000-2005 period, before increasing again in 2010-2014. In the earlier period, unemployment and a weaker social safety net reduced happiness, and the recovery of happiness levels took a long time. China now ranks 79th, below South Korea and the Philippines, but ahead of Indonesia and Vietnam. It also outranks Greece, where happiness suffered during the long-standing economic crisis, and the cradle of Gross National Happiness (GNH), Bhutan.

 

Mapping happiness

With the exception of pockets of red (unhappy) and orange (less happy) in Africa and part of the Middle East and Asia, overall, the world looks quite green and happy. There is a lot green to see on this map, from North America to Latin America, in Europe, in most of Asia, and in Oceania. Overall, the world is quite a happy place – and mind you, it’s the only planet where the International Day of Happiness is celebrated!

 

Schermafbeelding 2017-03-21 om 09.30.02

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.

 

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

 

Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

Does size matter: higher tax, happier countries?

One of the oldest questions in political philosophy is of course: does size matter? Or to phrase it more precisely for the aims of this blog, does the size of the state influence the level of happiness of its population?

There are two ways of looking at the questions. Firstly, does the size of population matter for the quality of life? And secondly, how large a role should the government play in society?

Small is beautiful

At least at the anecdotal level, the first question is relatively to answer. It appears that smaller countries, typically, have happier populations than larger ones. From a theoretical angle, that makes sense. If a country is smaller, it is more likely to have a more homogenous population, and people are more likely to feel close to each other. For instance, this would result in a better community life, one of the factors associated with happiness. A glance at the 2016 World Happiness Report shows that most of the top-ten countries are relatively small, with Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland in the top-three, and only Canada, Netherlands and Australia (numbers six, seven and nine) having a population above 10 million.

Schermafbeelding 2016-05-22 om 18.37.08

Father state makes you… happy?

There is a second way of looking at the question, though. Does the share that the government takes in the economy and society affect happiness levels? Is it the invasive Big Government or rather the freedom of the laissez faire night-watcher state that makes people best off?

A book by Benjamin Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness, suggests there are three ways of measuring state size when assessing the correlation: welfare spending; overall government spending; and taxation.

From a theoretic perspective, one could presume a link between government spending and happiness. For instance, welfare policies could be expected to provide the safety net to lower income and/or unemployed people, and therefore reduce inequality. Similarly, a large amount of government spending – for instance by providing free or subsidised education or healthcare – could result in higher happiness levels.

Indeed, the evidence assessed by Radcliff suggests this kind of link. His data shows that for one of the metrics, linked to welfare spending, countries scoring high on this indicator, happiness levels are above one point higher than low-scoring countries. He suggests that this contribution to happiness is double that of being married (being married is positively correlated with happiness), and three times the negative drag of unemployment. To give an example: if your baseline happiness is 7, living in a state with high spending would statistically increase your happiness to 8. Being unemployed would drag it down to 6,7. That’s the magnitude of the influence of the state size according to Radcliff’s evidence!

More tax, more happiness

Government spending doesn’t come for free. While taxation of citizens and companies isn’t the only source of income, it typically is the most significant one. Could it really be the case that being taxed more resulted in citizens being happier?

Again, the data suggest there is a correlation. Radcliff even states that “higher levels of taxation suggest higher levels of satisfaction with life”.

The graph here compares taxation levels (tax revenue as % of GDP) with happiness levels (life satisfaction), based on data from the OECD and the World Happiness Report quoted above. It shows an increasing trendline, associating a level of taxation of 20% in this group of OECD countries with a happiness level of around 6.5. All others thing equal, a level of 50% is correlated with a happiness level of around 6.8: some one thirds of a point higher across the trendline.

But not all others things are equal: the distribution is broad and the effects are very diverse. Denmark is on the top right with a happiness level of 7.526 and the very highest tax level of 50,9. On the far left, we find Switzerland with a marginally lower happiness level of 7.509 and only half the tax rate at 26.6%. On the lowest part of the graph, with happiness levels just above 5 points, we find Portugal, Greece and Hungary, with taxation levels around 34-38%.

tax vs happiness

 

Correlation, goes the warning to every first-year student, is not causation. The 34 countries of the OECD provide some interesting figures, but there are many other factors than taxation that determine happiness. Idiosyncratic factors and practical things like a state’s efficiency – what kind of society does is create with the 20 or 50% tax money it collects? – certainly also play a role. I’ll look at some of what the states does next week: the Nanny State.

Development and happiness II: “There is no plan B, because there is no planet B”

There is no plan B, because there is no planet B (Ban Ki-Moon)

Yesterday I offered some comments on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), saying that even the UN can learn something from inspiring quotes on the internet. Sometimes they are right: a goal without a plan is just a wish. Today I want to close the story, looking at Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s vision. And I’ll propose some alternative goals, based on happiness. What else did you expect?

 

Can Ban Ki-Moon help us?

Does the UN have a plan to achieve the goals? Some weeks ago I had the chance to listen to a speech by UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon in Brussels and find an answer for myself. The speech and the conference were dedicated to the contribution that young people can make in development and in the SDGs.

Ban is about as boring as a diplomat can get, but struck a cool tone at the conference.  He invited the audience to take selfies and  spoke very upbeat about the power of people, especially young people, to drive change. He urged youth to speak up in face of injustice, to make their voice heard, and make opinions clear at the voting booth and the supermarket counter.

He answered a question about the failure of achieving sanitation goals with a personal story about growing up without a proper toilet in South Korea. In the MDGs, enormous progress is being made on improving access to drinking water and sanitation. Still, 2.5 billion people don’t have access to improved sanitation facilities.

On climate change, he also had a good sound-bite to show his confidence that humans will do the right thing: “There is no plan B, because there is no planet B”. As a sound-bite it is great, but one has to hope it’s backed up by concrete action.

 

Are we really doing the right thing?

I wonder whether it is possible to find a better way to set goals and make our plans. Psychology and happiness research may offer some alternatives. The World Happiness Report finds that 75% of the differences in happiness levels between countries is explained by six factors. What if we would use these to shape our policies by six concrete goals instead?:

  • GDP per capita: reduction of absolute poverty and hunger. How? Set targets for the number of people who live from less than a dollar per day.
  • Social support: develop and nurture support mechanisms in families, wider social groups, and via social security. How? Set targets for the scope of social security and other mechanism.
  • Healthy life expectancy: continue investment in improved healthcare, water and sanitation. How? Set new targets for infant mortality, and maternal health, and access to water to sanitation.
  • Freedom to make life choices: work on gender balance and education. How? Set targets for access of women to education, work and decision-making, and targets for primary, secondary and tertiary education rates.
  • Generosity: cultivate generosity via volunteerism and civic life. How? Set targets for volunteering and democratic and social participation.
  • Perception of corruption (operationalisation of trust): develop a community where people trust each other. How? I’ll be honest: that’s too big of a question for me to answer.

 

Maybe by using happiness-based goals, we really can take a step in the good direction. Let me end with another quote, from World Happiness Report co-author Jeffrey Sachs:

“The aspiration of society is the flourishing of its members. [The World Happiness] Report gives evidence on how to achieve societal well-being. It’s not by money alone, but also by fairness, honesty, trust, and good health. [It] … will be useful to all countries as they pursue the new Sustainable Development Goals.”

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Source: United Nations

Development and happiness I: a goal without a plan is just a wish

A goal without a plan is just a wish (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

 goal-quote (1)

 

What is the best way forward for sustainable development?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have contributed to making earth a better place to be. From 1990 to 2015, they have helped the international community focus its efforts to improve access to healthcare and sanitation, make progress on gender equality, and reduce extreme poverty and hunger.

But we are not there yet. Low levels of development erect enormous barriers to happiness, and must be lifted. A developed country more often than not is a happy one. It is not automatic though: money does not always buy happiness. The opposite appears to be truer: poverty tends to buy unhappiness.

 

After MDGs, SDGs

To be truly successful in building on the progress of the MDGs, the new development goals, or Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be a smart set of goals focused on the areas that make a real difference in people’s daily lives. It is sad to see that the SDGs succeeding the MDGs don’t guide us as well to reach higher levels of well-being as the previous set. Goals require focus.

The SDGs are too broad and lack the focus to reduce the barriers to a good life. As they are negotiated, the current set consists of 17 goals with a large number of sub goals. Whilst all of them are worth achieving, some are not specific enough to serve as a goal:

3.d strengthen the capacity of all countries, particularly developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction, and management of national and global health risks

How will the capacity be strengthened? By when?

Others seem to have little to do with real development. Everybody is in favour of sustainable tourism and creating jobs (buzzword!), but should that be the priority in the next 15 years?

8.9 by 2030 devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism which creates jobs, promotes local culture and products

Well-being is only referred once, in a horrible and vague formulation in diplomat speak that has all signs of being negotiated in multiple rounds. It doesn’t cover health, social support or personal development but… sustainable infrastructure. Here is the clause:

“develop quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and trans-border infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all.

 

Let’s pause there for a moment. Tomorrow I’ll continue with more questions: can Ban Ki-Moon help us to achieve concrete goals? And if we were to adopt goals based on happiness instead, what would they look like?

The World Happiness Report 2015: a wealth of data to make the world a happier place

The World Happiness Report 2015 is out and struck some headlines last week. Number one this year is Switzerland, and Togo comes last. But beyond praising winners and shaming losers, there is a lot more of interested figures to find. A quick selection of some of them.

The good news: how happy are we?

  • Let’s start with the good news. Of 130 countries where it was possible to compare data from 2012-2014 with 2005-2007, 53 saw significant improvements in happiness levels (41 decreased and 36 had no meaningful change). This suggests the world is a slightly happier place then it used to be.
  • The biggest improvements were made in Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Moldova and Sierra Leone, who each added around one full point in their score.
  • It’s the well-expected developing countries that fill the top-1o: Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia, all a solid 7.3 or higher
  • … and what’s the score of the number one, Switzerland? With three decimals to be Swiss and precise, we get to 7.587.

Other good news (but not in stats)!

  • The most important sections maybe are not those listing the countries, but providing case studies of cities and regions who have changed their policies to make use of all the knowledge about happiness, from Dubai to Jalisco (Mexico), and from Santa Monica to Bristol.
  • At the same time, progress is also made in the neuroscience of happiness. A dedicated chapter 5 summarizes some of the findings. For instance, evidence about the link between positive emotions and happiness appears to be stronger and stronger.
  • There is more and more understanding about the various distribution patterns of happiness within age groups and genders. Overall, women are slightly happier than men. Over age groups, the patterns differ per region: in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and South Asia, happiness goes down as age progresses. But in East Asia, but also in Western Europe, the best comes last: happiness levels go up as people enter their 70s.

The bad news: how unhappy are we?

  • There is still a lot, a lot of misery on our planet. More than fifty countries have happiness levels below 5.
  • And the worst-performing are truly miserable. Countries like Syria and Afghanistan, but also Rwanda, Benin and Burundi fall under 3.6 The lowest level is found in Togo at 2.839.
  • Two countries on different sides of the Mediterranean – Egypt and Greece – have lost more than one point. And some others (Jordan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Italy) lost around three quarters of a point.
  • For instance, the case of Italy (-.764, now at 5.948) is worrying. Usually, a high happiness level means a high level of resilience in phase of challenge. This fabric might be unraveled as result of the crisis Italy is going through.
  • To end with a positive note: he best ‘losers’, as far as one could be a loser with a score of 7.527, are the Danes. Denmark typically ranks one in most of the happiness report. I have been told that usually, it is no news when a happiness ranking is published, but this time it was: apparently, Danes are not used anymore to come second (or third, as now).

And now?

The 2015 World Happiness Report comes out with a large ambition: influencing the next development goals. As the UN prepares to adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) this year, the hope is that happiness outcomes are targeted within the SDGs. A worthwhile ambition: ultimately increasing human happiness and its fair distribution should be the goal of public policy.

One concern: the SDG process appears to be very complex, with over 150 different – and often, vague – ideas currently on the list of goals that could be adopted later this year. In such a process, they risk to lose their meaning. But either way, the wealth of statistics provides a lot of inspiration and background data to policy makers to make the world a happier place.

Geography of happiness

Why are Mexicans so happy?

Quiz question: which country is happier, the United States or Mexico? Based on what you read about wealth, migration and violence, you’d probably guess that the US outranks Mexico. This is not the case. In the World Happiness Report, Mexico scores a 7.088, just above 7.082 for the US. In other polls, Mexicans often score around 8 out of 10. What explains their happiness level?

The last two weeks I wrote about my main takeaways from the Well-being and Development Forum in Guadalajara that I attended, and about my own presentation. Today, I want to face a question that was the biggest one of the conference (and the title of one of the final panels): why are Mexicans so happy?

Data presented by some of the researchers illustrated that happiness in Mexico is surprisingly high: around eight points on a scale of ten. As everywhere, different factors contribute to (un)happiness. Professor Rene Millan Mon had measured performance on six factors to explain happiness. Of these, having the freedom to make own choices, a person’s health, and family relations, explained the largest part of happiness levels. Other factors – habitat, education and government – have a lower impact.

What was also remarkable to see is that Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city and the place of the conference, scored comparatively low. In a study of Imagina Mexico, it ranks as 70th out of 100 cities. It has good scores for spirituality and family, but a lot lower ones for economy, free time and friendship. And within the state of Jalisco, all more rural regions have higher happiness levels than this city of five million.

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Why is that? In the end, it shows we don’t have the full answer about Mexico’s happiness. The World Happiness Report distinguishes six elements that are thought to be determinative for happiness. These six – economic, health, social support, personal freedom, generosity, and perception of corruption – only explain about four points out of the 7.088. If we assume that measurements of happiness are scientifically sound and that the number really grasps how Mexicans feel, we simply don’t know what makes Mexicans so happy.

But this outperformance is not only visible in Mexico, but also in other countries in Latin America. I use to refer to it as the ‘Latin American happiness bonus’. Apparently there is something in Latin American culture that makes them happier than you would expect based on objective factors.

When asked, Mexicans themselves seem to think that strong social ties are one of the factor. Indeed, many people live a very active public life. The streets are full with people, and family ties are tight. But the question is whether this has emerged out of his own, or as an alternative structure to counter the negative effects of low public trust and a low quality of social security. The ‘fiesta’ culture could be another explanation. For instance, the quinceneria parties are a reason for a huge party, but also mark a key step or ‘accomplishment’ in life.

But social support is one of the factors studied in the report, and one that has the strongest relation with happiness as far as the data indicate! It might be that we still undervalue its significance in the data, but in the end, we don’t have the full answer. I experienced Mexico as a country full of contrasts. When reading about Mexico, I mainly read about violence, migration and drugs. Whilst social inequality, and protests about disappeared students were not far away, as a tourist I mainly experienced the warmth of the people, the beauty of their country, and also some pride about their enjoyable things (and about high happiness levels, too!). Maybe the surprisingly high happiness levels is just another contrast.