I'm fascinated by cross-national comparisons of happiness, and more than a little conflicted about them.
On one hand, I'm incredulous that the measurements could mean anything, especially when I consider the cultural subjectivity of happiness and the methodological difficulties involved with gathering this kind of data on a worldwide scale.On the other, they reveal a surprising amount of consistency.
And, I admit it, I have the same geeky, goofy interest in lists of this type that many people do. Each suggests questions: Why should this place be happy? Why should that one be unhappy? The exercise is somehow meaningful, and even pleasurable.
A new study run by the University of Michigan, called the Happiness Index, will appear in the July 2008 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. It produced results remarkably similar to an another cross-national comparison by the University of Leicester's Adrian G. White, which was drawn from a meta-analysis called the Happy Planet Index.
The Social Democratic countries of Northern Europe are shockingly happy (especially given that their weather is often lousy), with Denmark leading the way in the new study. The most miserable countries are hot and politically unstable–this year, troubled Zimbabwe sat at the bottom of the list. Given previous results, no surprises there.
The big surprise is that happiness seems to be rising around the world.
The Happiness Index goes back 17 years and covers 52 countries, and asks the same two questions of 350,000 participants: "Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy, not at all happy?" And, "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?"
According to the new results, happiness fell in 12 countries from 1981 to 2007, but it rose in the other 40.
Why? The basic answer appears to be that prosperity is rising in fast-developing countries like India and China. Money might not be able to buy you happiness, but misery can definitely take it away. The researchers speculate that there are also political factors involved: Countries that democratized and/or embraced gender equality, multiculturalism, and tolerance of gays and lesbians all saw jumps in happiness. Generally speaking, these types of surveys show politically free and egalitarian societies to be happier than average.
"The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives," says University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who directed the study. "It's a surprising finding. It's widely believed that it's almost impossible to raise an entire country's happiness level."
(Quotes from LiveScience.)
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About The Author
Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!