World Happiness Report is Nothing but a Smokescreen

John Abbott

May 6, 2024

Finland tops the list as the world’s happiest country for the 7th year running. But this tells us next to nothing. Behind the much-praised World Happiness Report is a misleading, feel-good smokescreen which allows key economic challenges to go unaddressed.

Upon first glance, the report seems quite harmless. What’s wrong with measuring happiness? After all, it’s a positive sign to national governments that they’re doing something right.

Yet, the WHR misleads more than it enlightens. Its methodology is questionable at best and the scores can often be misused by governments, distracting from deeper societal problems.

The report surveys around 1,000 to 3,000 people per country. Given most of these countries have tens or hundreds of millions of people, this number is a drop in the ocean. It’s not sufficient to capture the vast spectrum of human emotions and experiences across entire populations. The report claims that this sample size per country gives a “reasonably good estimate” for happiness rankings, boasting a 95% confidence interval. This is supposed to imply that the values are accurate (give or take some hundred people), but with such a small sample size, the margin of error is too wide to trust these figures blindly. Doing a proper survey covering many countries’ vast populations would prevent this problem, but also cost a brutal amount. Unless a good Samaritan was willing to cover the cost, it is likely we will never truly understand countries’ happiness.

This goes some way to explaining why people in countries high up in the rankings don’t seem to behave like especially happy people. Lithuania’s position at 19th  should indicate a very happy country indeed. But its performance in other statistics would suggest otherwise: 15th in world suicide rates (and 2nd in Europe), 2nd in world alcohol consumption and 3rd in world population decline.

Additionally, the report describes its 6 main variables as GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption. These tend to be oversimplified and don’t give a proper overview of what happiness is, being biased towards Western countries. Those governments can then use the report to point towards their regulatory politics as a badge of honour, encouraging them to continue pursuing them.

The fundamental problem with the WHR is the overarching gulf between stated and revealed preference. It is easy for a respondent to state in one moment that they feel a certain way. Yet the respondent’s actions often tell a completely different story. The focus on self-stated answers is harmful to the report’s credibility and the perceptions of certain governments.

So what is the solution? In my opinion, there are only two. First is a massive overhaul, requiring a larger sample size relative to the country’s population and a more diverse base of respondents, perhaps a 10% minimum. Out of all the countries in the report, Iceland has the smallest population at 370,000. The 1,000-person sample size covers 0.27% of its population. This group of people should be kept the same over time, to see how their lives have measurably changed. While this would be costly, the increased representation outweighs this with a truly accurate report.

The second is to acknowledge that happiness is impossible to measure. A combination of actual statistics is better at showing how ‘happy’ a country is. Objective data like healthcare quality, education access, and employment rates, among others, offer a more comprehensive view. At least their impact on daily life is more visible than asking respondents ‘how they felt today’.

In the end, while it’s nice to see your country be one of the ‘happiest’ in the world, the truth is that these rankings are a hollow victory lap for the top-ranking countries. The World Happiness Report, with its flawed metrics and superficial gloss, does not address what makes up true well-being. If we are serious about measuring and, more importantly, improving happiness, then it’s time for a rethink. We need to focus on the measurable statistics – or just not bother at all.

Author

  • John Abbott

    John is an International Relations graduate, achieving a First from Royal Holloway. His main interests are politics history and economics. He speaks fluent Russian and is learning French.

Written by John Abbott

John is an International Relations graduate, achieving a First from Royal Holloway. His main interests are politics history and economics. He speaks fluent Russian and is learning French.

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