Happiness Measure

Measuring national happiness seems to be a major activity of some. Well, at least the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Earth Institute seem to focus on this.

Some of the dimensions, from a March 16 story by Philip Pullella of Rueters:

The United States came in at 13, the United Kingdom at 23, France at 32, and Italy at 50.

“There is a very strong message for my country, the United States, which is very rich, has gotten a lot richer over the last 50 years, but has gotten no happier,” said Professor Jeffrey Sachs, head of the SDSN and special advisor to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

While the differences between countries where people are happy and those where they are not could be scientifically measured, “we can understand why and do something about it,” Sachs, one of the report’s authors, told Reuters in an interview in Rome.

“The message for the United States is clear. For a society that just chases money, we are chasing the wrong things. Our social fabric is deteriorating, social trust is deteriorating, faith in government is deteriorating,” he said.

Aiming to “survey the scientific underpinnings of measuring and understanding subjective well-being,” the report, now in its fourth edition, ranks 157 countries by happiness levels using factors such as per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and healthy years of life expectancy.

It also rates “having someone to count on in times of trouble” and freedom from corruption in government and business.

“When countries single-mindedly pursue individual objectives, such as economic development to the neglect of social and environmental objectives, the results can be highly adverse for human wellbeing, even dangerous for survival,” it said.

“Many countries in recent years have achieved economic growth at the cost of sharply rising inequality, entrenched social exclusion, and grave damage to the natural environment.”


The first report was issued in 2012 to support a U.N. meeting on happiness and well-being. Five countries – Bhutan, Ecuador, Scotland, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela – now have appointed Ministers of Happiness charged with promoting it as a goal of public policy.

The complete rankings are here.

In February of this year, Emma Teitel commented on the futility of attempts to measure national happiness:

…(happiness is ) a feeling that is forever hard to put your finger on. For starters, what is happiness, anyway? And provided that you know what it is, how do you gauge its presence?

Is it measured best moment by moment, in individual bursts of elation, or slowly, over a long period of time? If you’re miserable in January but February is looking up (though it rarely is), are you officially happy, or is your new mood merely a sunny blip in an otherwise blue existence?

Yet, despite the numerous challenges involved in measuring happiness we do it all the time. And we do it in droves. Canadians aren’t the only happy — or “pretty happy” — citizens on the planet. According to another recent study, by polling association WIN/Gallup International, Saudi Arabia is the third happiest nation in the world. And Libya — according to yet another happiness index — is the happiest country in Africa.

…happiness indexes are an increasingly popular way by which experts measure a nation’s success (as opposed to, say, looking at its GDP), but this method is inherently flawed. Why?

Mark D. White, chair of philosophy at City University of New York (in a paper on happiness indexes and public policy), writes: “Happiness is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Just like ‘justice’ or ‘beauty,’ happiness is a vague term that means different things to different people; as a consequence, even though everyone knows what it means in various situations, we would be hard-pressed to come up with a single definition that captures all those aspects for every person.”

…Happiness surveys, says White, may make “people in First World countries less sympathetic to people who actually need help.”

For example, someone might conclude after hearing that Libya is a generally happy nation (perhaps even as happy as Canada) that the country doesn’t require or deserve aid; that an admission of happiness by a country’s population decreases the perceived severity of the country’s problems. This danger doesn’t merely apply to nations facing mass poverty or political unrest, but to nations like our own.

We know that depression is under-reported in Canada — and that suicide may be as well— so what is the purpose of a survey model that suggests to the wider world that things are looking up when in fact they aren’t? The answer is simple: There is none.

Happiness surveys with positive results make for fun, fluffy stories that boost civic pride. But they also foster a culture of complacency and self-deception, in which we ignore our problems and pat ourselves on the back for no good reason. And that is pretty sad.

Well, in the current Sustainable Development Solutions Network/Earth Institute rankings, Libya comes in at number 67, ahead of Jamaica and China, and far ahead of South Africa, at number 116.


More happiness:

About brucelarochelle

This entry was posted in China, Libya, South Africa. Bookmark the permalink.

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