Can You Measure Happiness?

Everyone wants to be happy. Whilst measuring happiness individually can be an easy task – or, at least, somewhat easily accessible –, it becomes increasingly difficult when faced with the task of applying this to a society as a whole. Nationally, how do you measure happiness?

“the care of human life and happiness […] is the only legitimate object of good government.”

Thomas Jefferson, American Founding Father and third President of the United States of America

To measure happiness is no longer just of interest to researchers and the public itself. Governments and leaders of the world have increasingly recognised the importance of their people’s contentment.

Since 2012, there has been a World Happiness Report every year. It was introduced to support the UN High Level meeting on happiness and well-being. Very aptly, the meeting was chaired by Mr. Jigme Thinley, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, which is the first country to include the nation’s Gross National Happiness in its law.

It is based on the Gallup World Poll, which tracks the most important issues worldwide, such as food access, employment, leadership performance and well-being. The poll is mostly conducted via a telephone survey (approximately 30 minutes) but only in those countries that have at least 80% telephone coverage. Random-digit-dial (RDD) is used to select completely arbitrary participants. For developing countries, face-to-face interviews are chosen, which last about one hour.

On average, Gallup interviews 1,000 people per country. Occasionally, larger samples of up to 2,000 individuals are collected if the country is particularly large. In major cities or areas of special interest, oversamples are often collected.

The Top 10 countries of 2017’s World Happiness Report were:

  1. Norway
  2. Denmark
  3. Iceland
  4. Switzerland
  5. Finland
  6. Netherlands
  7. Canada
  8. New Zealand
  9. Australia
  10. Sweden

The countries are ranked based on their answers in categories such as:

  • Social support
  • Health
  • Freedom
  • Generosity
  • Income
  • Trust in the respective government

The categories themselves are interesting and give us a lot of information about what makes a person and, therefore, an entire nation happy.

Freedom, social support and health are definite key features in what determines a person’s happiness. Not often does this fall back on the ruling government. Access to healthcare and the willingness to listen to the people, therefore giving them freedom of speech and, ultimately, the freedom to influence life choices, are essential. After all, this is a two-way-street. A prudent government means a happier nation means peaceful togetherness.

It is therefore no surprise that, for example, America has dropped in this year’s report compared to last – they now come in 14th place whereas last year, they came in 13th. Whilst income and healthy life expectancy increased, four other key factors have significantly decreased: Access to social support, a sense of reduced personal freedom, lower donations and a perceived increase in corruption. This illustrates the importance of social factors enormously.

Likewise, China’s subjective decrease in a feeling of well-being is not in line with the objective rise in GDP (Gross Domestic Product). This can be traced back to the problems of unemployment, changes in social safety nets and periodic drops in life expectancy. The 2017 World Happiness Report includes an entire chapter on China’s development from 1990 until 2015.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Norway. Ranking in fourth place in 2016, it has now come first place. This is because Norway shows a rich economy with an abundance of natural resources. They have decided to use said resources and invest them in long-term sustainable solutions as opposed to quick-fired, short-term gain.

Another interesting factor is the importance of mental health in the Western world. It was given significant importance in the determination of personal happiness – way above income, employment or even physical health. All countries’ answers showed that misery would be decidedly reduced if the number of people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders could be lowered by better access to mental health care and social support.

All the examples above prove that happiness is based on a give-and-take with one’s own government. It is not solely based on social, nor is it solely based on economic factors. A harmonious balance of the two needs to be achieved. To simply measure happiness is not sufficient, we must improve on this learned knowledge. A sense of safety, having a say and guaranteed financial and social support are key factors in a functioning relationship between leaders and people. Or as Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and co-author of the World Happiness Report, put it, “It’s time to build social trust and healthy lives, not guns or walls.” Let’s hope more countries catch on and start to measure happiness.

Make sure you check out the rest of the articles in our series on happiness:


Photo courtesy of pixabay
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