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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.

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