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Database of Happiness

By Murray Bourne, 06 May 2008

Are you happy?

What does the question really mean? Is anyone really happy all the time - all day, every day? Or for that matter, is anyone grumpy all the time?

In the World Database of Happiness, countries are ranked on their happiness using a scale of 1 (least happy) to 10 (most happy). This survey is directed by Ruut Veenhoven of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and it is updated yearly.

According to Veenhoven, the happiest countries (on average) are Denmark (with an average happiness rating of 8.2), followed by Switzerland (8.1), Austria (8.0), Iceland (7.8) and Finland (7.7).

At the other end of the scale is Zimbabwe (3.3) and in the rank of least happy country in the world, we have Tanzania (3.2).

Now this is all very interesting, but to be a good comparison, the same happiness question should be used in every country. However, it turns out that the happiness rankings are not based on the exact same question. For example, in Japan, the question used has 5 choices:

"Overall, how satisfied are you with your present life?"
o Very satisfied (5)
o Fairly satisfied (4)
o Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied (3)
o Fairly dissatisfied (2)
o Very dissatisfied (1)

[But of course, this is not the actual question used - it would have been in Japanese. ^_^]

In the USA, the question used has 3 choices:

"Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say you are...:"
o Very happy (3)
o Pretty happy (2)
o Not too happy (1)

So the questions are not the same, so it is probably not right to make national comparisons based on this.

Effects of time

I don’t know about you, but my happiness level at 6:00 am when I have just woken up is quite different to my happiness level at 10:00 when I’m on holidays, and different again if it is 2:00 pm and I’m in a long boring meeting. You get the idea - our happiness level changes with time.

How can these researchers make sure they ask everyone the happiness question at the same time of day, or even the same time of year?

Now I know they have general statements like "taken all together" or "overall", but I’m still not convinced that you can get consistent results.

And we all know some people who are only happy when they are grumbling about something! So are they really happy?

Perhaps we need a more scientific method of determining if people are happy. The Gini Coeffient comes to mind.

Gini Coefficient

The Gini Coefficient is a method used to decide if wealth is evenly distributed in a country. The theory goes that if people feel as wealthy (or poor) as the next guy, then they are not jealous and so probably happier.

There is interesting mathematics in the Gini coefficient, because it involves the area under a curve (which involves integration).

Gini co-efficient

From the World Bank:

The coefficient varies between 0, which reflects complete equality and 1, which indicates complete inequality (one person has all the income or consumption, all others have none).

Using the Gini coefficient as one possible indicator of happiness, we find that the countries with the most evenly distributed wealth are Denmark (0.247), Japan (0.249) and Sweden (0.25). [Source]

At the other end of the scale are Sierra Leone (0.629), Lesotho (0.632) and in last place, Namibia (0.743).

So there appears to be some agreement with the Database of Happiness and the Gini coefficient, with the northern European countries faring towards the top and certain African countries towards the bottom.

Either way, this issue of how happy people are is going to become quite important as food and fuel prices continue to rise around the world. The next round of surveys are sure to show a drop in happiness.

See the 4 Comments below.

4 Comments on “Database of Happiness”

  1. Vinod says:

    Either way, this issue of how happy people are is going to become quite important as food and fuel prices continue to rise around the world. The next round of surveys are sure to show a drop in happiness.

    Not so fast! If the theory is that people are happy not because of how rich they are, but how much richer they are than their neighbours, then if everyone suffers equally, there should be no change in overall happiness.

    Of course, we then have to look at the elasticity of demand of food & etc...

    p/s Hi!

  2. Murray says:

    Valid point, Vinod - and it's good to hear from you.

    I'm still thinking about what happiness really is.

    One theory goes that it is the ability to laugh at yourself, no matter how bad the situation. (The reason that Australians are regarded as amongst the happiest people in the world is that they don't take anything - or anyone - seriously.)

    Another goes that happiness is the absence of sadness. The northern Europeans mentioned above are not known for outright beaming laughing-type happiness, rather, it is more a quiet inner contentment with life.

    Enough of the generalisations and stereotyping, already...

  3. Michael Heslop says:

    Greetings to one and all!

    My idea of happiness is one of inner peace and contentment. Happiness for me is a function of one's health, education, basic material comfort and very importantly loving and accepting yourself for who you are.

    However, I also believe that one's happiness is also a function of one's contribution to trying to maximize the welfare of the less fortunate members of society. The latter means contributing to the material and spiritual comfort of others, contributing to the struggle for clean air and water, safe foods, health care and education and inevitably participating in the fight of humanity's survival against the fossil fuel based climate change.

    For me happiness is therefore functionally related to a wide array of variables that generate comfort and safety not only of one's family and oneself but also the happiness and safety of the other members of society. My happiness function excludes selfishness as a varible though it includes my self-interest and as a variable.

    Thus for me happiness is highly subjective and relative and is not measurable solely or mainly in material wealth. How many wealthy people are miserable, sad and depressed? How many millions of people in wealthy nations are stressed out, sad, lonely and profoundly depressed?

    As such we should seriously evaluate the merits and demerits of the socalled Gross National Happiness index or GNH versus the merits and demerits of the already discredited Gross National Product or GNP that is used primarily to measure current production of goods and services or material wealth.

    So in the mean time as we grapple with the meaning of happiness, we should probably heed the words of Bob Marley and "Speak happiness because we sad enough without your woes".

    We should also heed Marley's words and remember than "...a hungry man is an angry man". I'll challenge you and I to munch of the following questions: Is a hungry man a happy man? or Can a hungry man be a happy man? More importantly, why are there hungry men, children and women in our world some of whom are obese? and Why are there obese billionaires and multimillionaires who are frequently subsidized by the cheap labor and taxes of the millions of hungry and poor peoples on our planet?

    Peace makes me HAPPY and war makes me SAD!


    Michael Heslop

  4. Murray says:

    Thanks for your interesting input, Michael. I agree with most of what you said.

    I recently read about a guy who is doing charity work in Cambodia and his view is that most of us are "addicted to comfort." He was rich (in a money sense) but only really found happiness when he gave up all the comforts and "must have" material goods, and went and helped people.

    I'm looking forward to doing the same sometime in the future.

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