Monday, March 27, 2017

World Happiness Report: A Dubious, Subjective Attempt to Define Happiness

Last Monday was International Happiness Day. Part of that Day was the release of the 2017 World Happiness Report. The report contains multiple measures of collective and social welfare from 155 countries. The report caught some peoples' eyes for a couple reasons. One is that the top five happiest countries are Norway, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, and Finland. The other is that when the report started five years ago, the United States was ranked tenth. This year, the United States dropped down to being fourteenth. Some took the findings at face value and thought it was sad that the United States is a less happy nation. Rather than accept the findings unquestionably, I have to ask an even more fundamental question: What is happiness?

The World Happiness Report uses survey work to ask 1,000 individuals from each country how happy they feel on a scale from 1 to 10. The report bases its definition of wellbeing on three main factors (p. 10):

The report uses certain variables to explain the rankings in happiness, including GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) adjusted dollars, life expectancy, social support, generosity in terms of giving to charity, freedom to make life choices, and confidence that the government is not corrupt (p. 17). In Chapter 7 of the report ("Restoring American Happiness"), Left-leaning economist Jeffrey Sachs writes about how we need to focus less on economic growth, and more on growing income inequality and rising distrust and corruption (p. 179).

While I admire an effort to measure happiness, it is difficult to take such findings seriously or at face value because of the subjective nature of happiness. For one, happiness varies person by person. Happiness can mean a good job, lots of money, a steady family, a strong social network, a religious calling, or many other things. The definition does not vary simply by individual, but also by country. Is happiness having a roof over your head? Living a long time? For those living in an authoritarian regime, it could simply mean surviving or being in a well-off enough of a position where the government really doesn't bother you. In the developed world, it could mean having your needs provided for, but it could also have the added goal of pursuing something greater than oneself.

Happiness economics suffers both from empirically defining happiness and inherent limitations in measuring such happiness. Happiness is a multifaceted, complex issue stemming from biological, cultural, historical and sociological underpinnings, which makes happiness less of an empirical pursuit and more realizing that the definition is a changing, moving target that varies from person-to-person and by country. Given the nature of happiness, it will remain an elusive and speculative affair, which is why all is said and done, I would hardly give the World Happiness Report, especially in terms of dictating public policy implications.

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