The quest for happiness has been in the news a bit lately. Earlier this month Switzerland’s president recommended laughter in a televised speech to commemorate the Swiss day of the sick.
On Sunday 20 March 2016, happiness is back on the agenda. This time in Rome where UN world happiness day celebrations will take place.
Ahead of this event, researchers John Helliwell, Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs and others published a world happiness update. The fourth since it started in 2012, it takes a serious look at some hard-to-quantify but important measures of human wellbeing. The project aims to shift the measurement of wellbeing beyond metrics such as wealth.
The latest paper includes new statistics on happiness equality, a measure that one day might provide evidence to support the adage that money can’t buy happiness.
Fun with numbers
The study asks people in each country to score questions about their lives from 0 to 10, and an adjustment, named dystopia, is made to remove cultural differences. The total scores are then broken down into seven things. The first six have meaning, the seventh is what remains: the dystopia adjustment and happiness from unidentified sources.
1. Wealth – GDP per capita
2. Healthy life expectancy
3. Social support – having someone to count on in times of trouble
4. Trust or the absence of corruption in government or business
5. Perceived freedom to make life decisions
7. Dystopia adjustment and happiness from other unidentifiable sources
The largest element in the vast majority of scores is the dystopia adjustment and unidentified drivers, showing just how imperfect the science of happiness measurement is. Essentially, the results measure happiness but without explaining all of it.
Switzerland nudged out by Denmark
In the 2016 update, Switzerland had a happiness score of 7.509, just behind Denmark’s first place score of 7.526. Last time Switzerland came first and scored 7.587, higher by 0.078, and Denmark third with 7.527, higher by only 0.001.
It would be nice to conclude that Danish Lego brings more colour to lives than iconic Swiss Caran D’Ache colouring pencils, but given how difficult happiness is to measure, the differences between these two countries are trivial.
I’m happier if you’re happy
A new measure added this year looks at happiness equality within countries. Switzerland, at number seven, made the top 10 here too. In the OECD, Netherlands (3rd), Singapore (4th), Iceland (5th) and Luxembourg (6th) all had high happiness equality. Mountainous Bhutan ranked top on equality despite ranking only 84th for happiness.
While Bhutan’s result seems to suggest a trade off between happiness and happiness equality, the overall results suggest the opposite. Seven of the 20 most equal are in the 20 most happy. Likewise, only one (Puerto Rico) in the 20 most unequal is in the top 20 happiest.
Broadly speaking, happiness equality appears to make us happy.
While the aims of this report are laudable some of the results are laughable. Are the those living in Uzbekistan (49th) really that much happier than those in Portugal (94th)? The 2015 Uzbekistan election, saw Islam Karimov reelected president with 90% of the votes. Karimov has ruled the country since 1990. Amnesty International describes how torture is used in Uzbekistan to repress political opposition.
Italy, with its dolce vita, long life expectancy (81) and the euro, manages only 50th, six places behind Venezuela (44th), a country suffering from corrupt government and judiciary, lower life expectancy (74), and inflation of 720%.
There appear to still be a few wrinkles to iron out of the methodology for calculating happiness.
10 happiness-boosting tips
The organisers of UN world happiness day have come up with a guidebook containing 10 tips for a happier life. Anyone tempted to keep these gems of wisdom a closely guarded secret won’t get past the first one.
1. Do things for others
2. Connect with people
3. Take care of your body – with exercise for example
4. Live mindfully – stop to smell the roses
5. Keep learning new things
6. Have goals to look forward to
7. Find ways to bounce back
8. Look for what’s good
9. Be comfortable with who you are
10. Be part of something bigger
Their website also shows how the happiness movement embodies these actions. Slogans such as “Happiness is contagious, start an epidemic”, “Be excellent to each other” and “You are so freaking awesome” are a few of the positive messages promoted by happiness proponents.
Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at London School of Economics says “Pay attention to the stuff you do day to day, moment to moment. There is a saying about not sweating the small stuff. Happiness is in the small stuff. It’s not in the big life changing changes. It’s in the stuff you do day to day.”
The details matter.