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Why the World Happiness Report Makes Us All Unhappy

Jan 16, 2020 | Mindset

The World Happiness Report should make me happy. After all, it combines my love of the study of happiness with the heady allure of science. It’s packed full of glorious statistics, and refers to its own data as hard fact.

And that is how I used to read it – as hard fact. But over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly doubtful about its relevance to certain parts of the world, and the more I study it, the more flawed I find it to be.

Since the first World Happiness Report was published in 2012, Botswana has slid down the ranking from 22nd from the bottom, to our current placement of 7th from the bottom. Last year I wrote an article trying to determine why, at 9th from the bottom, our nation is so unhappy. This year, I am trying to determine why the index is insisting that we are so unhappy, when most of us are not actually feeling unhappy.

It does not take an expert to look at the index results, year on year, and realise that the countries who are consistently in the top 20, are predominantly WEIRD countries. That is, they are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. Which is fine, if these are necessary ingredients for happiness. But, it is also important to note that the authors of the index are also all from WEIRD countries. So, the ranking is designed for the WEIRD, by the WEIRD, and it is therefore no surprise that it consistently puts the WEIRD at the top of the rankings.

If the indexing of countries’ happiness levels was purely a thought experiment, with no practical impact, then I would have no problem with this. But of course there are practical outcomes. I am already seeing articles about “What the world’s happiest nation can teach us about living with coronavirus” and “Scandinavia tops the charts again!”, giving these northern European countries some sort of ‘expert’ position over the rest of us. But is this impression a true one? I think not.

The first report was published following the Bhutanese Resolution in June 2011, that invited national governments to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development”. This is a noble aim, and one I am fully on board with, but I am not convinced that the global index is a way to encourage governments to do this, and I worry that this ranking exercise does more harm than good.

Getting down to the nitty gritty – what does the measurement cover? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a bit of a quality of life score, using GDP and life expectancy statistics plus a couple of questions around levels of social support (“If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” – Yes or No), and one’s freedom to make life choices (“Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” – Yes or No); combined with some questions about the behaviours of your society, in the form of measures of generosity and perceived levels of corruption; and some questions about levels of positive and negative emotions and satisfaction with life.

There are four major problems I have with the index.

Problem 1 – What is happiness?

In the field of positive psychology, which studies happiness, there is still no agreed-upon definition of the word ‘happiness’. It’s harder to define than you may think – go on, give it a shot! Many studies measuring happiness, rather than explicitly defining it, rely on people “knowing it when they see it”.

But there are some terms which do have psychological definitions, and I will share these with you now to help you make sense of all this.

Firstly, we have “subjective well-being” which refers to someone’s evaluation of their quality of life, and includes three factors – frequency of positive emotions (e.g. joy, elation, affection), frequency of negative emotions (e.g. guilt, anger, shame), and a cognitive evaluation of life satisfaction.

Secondly, there’s “hedonic happiness” which simply assumes that lots of emotional pleasure combined with little emotional pain, leads to happiness (the same positive and negative emotions mentioned in the subjective well-being model above).
Thirdly, we have “eudaimonic happiness”. This term comes from the Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ which means ‘the good life’ and refers to the experience of living a fulfilling, meaningful life, where we are striving for excellence and reaching our full potential (self actualisation).

Finally, we have “satisfaction with life” which is an evaluation of one’s life as a whole, in other words, how much the person likes the life they lead (it does not reflect one’s current levels of happiness).

The problem here, with the World Happiness Report, is that these terms are used interchangeably, as if they are the same thing, but they refer to distinctly separate things, which are studied and validated separately by the scientific community. It is misleading to call something a ‘happiness index’ without adhering to the agreed confines of these scientific terms (unless you are making up your own definitions, which is fine, but you need to be clear about what the word means in this instance).

So, we have a definition problem and a reliability problem, making the measurement ambiguous at best.

Problem 2 – The slippery nature of statistics

The data that is used to make up the index is averaged over the past few years. This means that even if things suddenly improve drastically in a country, for example, the people overthrow a despotic government and life changes for the better overnight, this country is not going to move up the ranking much because the results are also based on the years leading up to this momentous occasion. Likewise, those countries sitting comfortably at the top, could experience a horrific event, resulting in a drastic drop in quality of life, but still remain at the top amongst the happiest nations.

Another issue with the statistics is that there is a strong likelihood that the surveys are completed by the same people, year on year. I was unable to confirm whether this is the case for the Gallup World Poll (whose data is used for the World Happiness Report), but Gallup clearly state this is the case with some of their other measures, so there is a high possibility that this is the case here too (remember, Gallup is a commercial entity, who use their data to make lots of money from corporates and governments, so they are very cagey with the specific details of how they collect it). This could mean that we are only reflecting the feelings of a select few people, who are not necessarily representative of the whole country, and because we don’t know anything about the respondents, the results may even be biased by factors such as their age (happiness is high in our 20s, drops through our 30s, 40s and 50s, and increases again in our 60s).

A colleague of mine, who works in the positive psychology field with me, spends half her life in France (ranked 23rd this year), and half in Iceland (ranked 4th). She told me that culturally, Icelanders have a tendency to overrate their life experiences, while the French tend to downplay theirs. As the majority of the data used for the index is self-reported, this cultural influence could result in a significant bias.

And finally, the same colleague, also pointed out that, although Iceland ranked 4th on the World Happiness Report, the country also has one of the world’s highest rates of severe depression. So it is possible to have a high GDP, long life expectancy, have high levels of social support and freedom of choice, rate your quality of life as excellent, and yet still suffer from high levels of depression. Thereby confusing issues further.

Problem 3 – What is generosity?

One of the questions I find upsetting, is the one that relates to a country’s levels of generosity. The question reads: “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?” and then analyses the results against GDP.

Well, I can bet, that most of the Batswana included in the study answered “No” to that question. But that doesn’t mean they are not generous. It just means that the Western construct of generosity does not apply here.

We may not set up standing orders at the bank to donate P100 to an orphanage in Columbia every month, but I know countless people who take on the emotional, practical and financial responsibilities of distant relatives to ensure that they have a roof over their head, clothes on their back, a proper education, and a supportive, loving family. Caregivers in Botswana are not just parents, as the case usually is in the West, but grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, second cousins once removed, and even further flung relations. In fact, the term ‘second cousin once removed’ doesn’t even exist in Botswana because no one feels that distantly related. We’re all ‘aunties’, ‘uncles’, ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’. If this is not a reflection of extreme generosity, I don’t know what is.

Problem 4 – Logical leaping

My final major problem with the survey is the logical leaps that the authors have made, from the findings of research studies, to a set-in-concrete set of happiness measures. For me, some of these factors do not sufficiently show a direct link to happiness, but are more “once or twice removed”. These may be indicators, but the environmental factors must be well considered on a case-by-case basis for it to be meaningful.

The first measure of GDP is suspect as an indicator of a nation’s levels of happiness. There is no evidence that I could find that suggests it is. There are studies which show that as a nation progresses, and their economy improves, that happiness levels rise along with it. But this effect only lasts for about 10 years once the situation has stabilised, and then the effect wears off. Secondly, there is a wealth of evidence that shows that human beings are highly adaptive. That is, we get used to both improved and worsened circumstances very quickly. Hence, that warm fuzzy feeling, generated from driving your brand new car, only lasts for a few months, and the person who was crippled in a car accident returns to their pre-accident levels of happiness six months later. All this suggests that we get used to the environment we live in, and the impact it has on our happiness levels is minimal.

The same argument applies to the next measure of life expectancy. We may have a much lower than average life expectancy compared to the rest of the world, due to the HIV/AIDS crisis we’ve lived through, but it is now a part of our life, and I think I’d be pretty hard pressed to find people wallowing in sadness because they aren’t likely to live as long as the average European.

I do need to acknowledge that some of the factors are scientifically validated indicators of happiness. The third factor, ‘social support’ is a factor that decades of research demonstrates is extremely important for our levels of happiness. In fact, some studies suggest that positive relationships are the most important factor. And we don’t actually score too badly on this factor in the index, being more in line with the countries around the 50th placement in the ranking.

The fourth factor of ‘freedom to make life choices’ is also another one that has scientific backing. Autonomy is a basic human need to feel happy and fulfilled. Just look at any baby who pushes away offers of help to open a lid and you will see what I mean. We need to feel that we have a sense of agency over our own lives. And this is perhaps an area that Botswana can do much better in. Maybe, for example, it’s time we give teachers the choice of where they work in the country, and students a proper choice of which programme they study at university.

All this takes me to the big question, “Should we be bothered?” And I think the answer is “Yes”.

Each year the World Happiness Report comes out, I see confusion and disbelief across social media platforms, as Batswana try to make sense of our position in the ranking. I read countless comments of “I think we’re OK”, “I don’t believe it”, and “This is just Western propaganda”. We don’t feel 7th from the bottom in the world, and our positioning doesn’t make sense to us. We are not a war-torn nation or a collapsed economy, so why are we languishing at the bottom with countries who are? We start to believe that our lived experience is not real. That those of us who are happy, have got it wrong, and that we shouldn’t be. The ‘experts’ out there know something we don’t know.

And I worry about the impact this has on our national brand. It definitely doesn’t make us look like the world destination of choice that we actually are. How much tourism potential have we lost due to this index? It upsets me thinking about it.
And so, over the course of 2019 to 2020, I have become increasingly convinced, that it is time for us to develop our own, better-suited, measure of well-being and happiness. One that is contextually and culturally appropriate for the region. One that we all understand, and had a hand in creating. Let’s create a measure – for Botswana, by Batswana – that allows us to measure ourselves against our own meaning of a happy life.

Then we’ll know where we really stand.

If you would like to talk to Celia about The World Happiness Report or about how to create happier work cultures, you can reach her on celia@positiveperformance.co.bw.