Every year, the World Happiness Report ranks 146 countries around the globe by their average level of happiness. Scandinavian countries usually top the list, the U.S. falls someplace in the mid-teens, and war-torn and deeply impoverished countries are at the bottom.

Three women smiling in Jodhpur, India, with their arms around each other

The happiness scores come from a survey of life satisfaction, which goes something like this: Considering your life as a whole and using the mental image of a ladder, with the best possible life as a 10 and worst possible as a 0, indicate where on the ladder you personally stand. This question basically gets people thinking about themselves and their resources, accomplishments, opportunities, and status.

But what if this question—versions of which are used in psychological research all around the world—is biased toward certain cultural ideals?

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“How can one reasonably conclude that country A is happier than country B, when happiness is being measured according to the way people in country A think about happiness?,” asked the authors of a new study.

In their study, they devised a culturally sensitive way of measuring well-being, and found that existing happiness rankings tend to underestimate scores in certain countries. In doing so, they discovered what might be a more accurate way to measure happiness across the world.

Different countries, different happinesses

Our cultural context shapes how we think about happiness. For example,  satisfaction with life is a very individually focused way of evaluating happiness; the question is about you and your own experience, and likely makes sense to people from individualistic cultures. Individualistic cultures tend to think of happiness as experiences of excitement and fun.

In other countries, the cultural orientation to happiness is more relationship-oriented and focused on interpersonal harmony and social interdependence. In other words, happiness there is not constrained to the individual, but comes from shared experiences. People in collectivist cultures would typically rate their happiness highly only if other people around them were also happy, and they think of it more like contentment.

To get at this difference, researchers surveyed nearly 13,000 people in 49 countries about their culture’s ideals around happiness as well as their own level of happiness, then adjusted their happiness scores accordingly.
Researchers gave study participants, who were mostly students, two different surveys. The first survey was called the Satisfaction with Life Scale (e.g., “You are satisfied with your life”). The second was called the Interdependent Happiness Scale, and captures shared and cooperative happiness (e.g., “You believe that you and those around you are happy”; “You make significant others happy”).

Study participants were asked to respond to each survey as they thought an ideal or perfect person would, both for themselves (my happiness) and in reference to their family (my family’s happiness). This was considered their cultural ideal of happiness. Then, they were asked to respond to the surveys from their own point of view, again, both about themselves and then about their family. This was considered their actual happiness.

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The cultural ideal of happiness varied across countries, from Japan (where people saw happiness more as a shared experienced rather than individual satisfaction with life) to Chechnya (where people saw happiness more as satisfaction). Interestingly, people in the U.S. reported a slight cultural preference for interdependent happiness over satisfaction with life, along with 12 other countries that valued both versions of happiness similarly.

Next, the researchers adjusted people’s actual happiness scores to take into account their culture’s views on happiness. For example, they gave more weight to satisfaction with life for people in countries that idealized satisfaction with life, and more weight to interdependent happiness for people in countries that idealized interdependent happiness. They also adjusted people’s happiness scores to reflect how much their culture valued happiness for the self vs. for the family, creating a culturally sensitive happiness score.

Their findings reveal that existing national happiness rankings, which mostly rely on a self-focused question about life satisfaction, underestimate happiness in countries where cultural ideals center on interdependence, harmony, and relationship. In further analyses, the researchers report that culturally sensitive happiness scores predict people’s positive emotional experiences better than their satisfaction with life, which suggests that existing happiness rankings might not tap into the emotional experiences involved in true happiness as a culturally sensitive approach could.

How should we measure happiness?

While this is a first step in exploring the crucial role of culture in measuring happiness, there are limits to this study that future research can explore. For example, it did not differentiate between cultural influences on happiness within countries. There are undoubtedly differences in how people with diverse cultural backgrounds within a country like the U.S. think about happiness that should be examined. There are also other facets of happiness—like meaning, purpose, or experiences like spirituality—that likely differ on cultural grounds, and in turn could influence responses to surveys about happiness.

As a happiness researcher myself, I often wonder why Bhutan, which pioneered the notion of Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product in 1972, does not top the list of global happiness rankings. This study feels like a preliminary look into the beginning of an answer. Perhaps the questions we’ve been asking to measure happiness, which frame happiness as being about oneself, are not always the right ones.

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