Ranking countries according to their happiness

CESAM researcher Dr Ilona Suojanen looks at topics through a happiness lens, which makes her a ‘happyologist’. Here, she blogs about The World Happiness Report, published in March, ranking the Netherlands sixth in a list of happy nations. She admits this indicates that things are going well in the Netherlands, but asks if it really tells us about the happiness of the Dutch, and suggests other indicators, such as safety, should be considered in happiness rankings.

The latest World Happiness Report has again ranked the countries according to their happiness, placing the Netherlands in sixth place. Living in the Netherlands, I am, in the real spirit of the team, extremely proud of this country. But as a happyologist, this doesn’t make me rejoice.

The Netherlands is a fine country, and many things are really good here. However, this does not indicate that the Dutch are necessarily happy. The standards used in the report mainly focus on social welfare, which is not the same as the happiness of citizens. In other words: even if the state was doing well, the people would not necessarily be happy. Besides, is it really true that outward matters create happiness? Is happiness not a subjective or an individual experience?

What makes happiness?

Examining some of the aspects ranked in the report enables us to question whether they are real indicators of happiness.

The Social Support Indicator is based on whether a person has someone on whose support they can lean on in difficult times. Does a positive answer to the question automatically tell us that the person is happy? What about sharing happy moments or everyday life – why are these not asked about?

The Freedom Indicator is based on how satisfied or dissatisfied someone is with their freedom to influence how to conduct their own life. How satisfied or dissatisfied we are is an estimation based on our expectations and their fulfilment. This does not necessarily lead to happiness. The indicator in this question is also very Western because freedom is a strong value in Western countries, but often less so in other parts of the world.

The Generosity Indicator asks if a person has donated money to charity in the last month. Does this then have a direct connection with our happiness? Attention is also directed to the fact that only giving money is surveyed, but not deeds, voluntary work, time or encouraging words. Also, ‘last month’ is a peculiar time frame, as often regular gifts to charity can be once or twice a year.

Alongside these three indicators, the ranking is based on GDP, the life span expectation, as well as corruption in governments and the business world. Somebody somewhere has decided for us that these things together should make an individual happy. However, there is no clear causal evidence of any of these creating happiness.

Other happy indicators

Who decides what happiness should be composed of? Which countries would be in the Top 10 if we observed the following things in the Happiness Report instead:

  • How safe do you feel?
  • How often do you laugh?
  • Do you have dreams and goals?
  • How meaningful do you see yourself and your life?
  • How loved do you feel?
  • How much time do you spend in nature and in the sun?

These are also aspects that might have positive impact on happiness, according to research, and could be the questions chosen to measure happiness. However, they still would not give us certain knowledge of how happy people really are. We would only get answers to these questions, without information about why and how these matters might affect our happiness. I am also aware of the fact that the questions I listed are shaped by the Western style of living and by the happiness studies which are also strongly Western. I would not rank the countries of the world on these terms either.

On the other hand, if depression, medication, anxiety, stress, burn-out and suicide are the indicators of an unhappy country, how likely is it that we would find the countries at the top of the Happiness Report heading the unhappiness list too?

How can we feel happy if we are afraid?

In my work at CESAM I have realised the importance of safety to our happiness. How could we ever be truly happy if we were not feeling safe, or to put it more strongly: how can we feel happy if we are afraid?

Several studies have shown that safety and wellbeing are closely related, safety and security are central to personal wellbeing, and both present and future safety are significant predictors of overall life satisfaction. For example, residents who feel safe score higher on mental and social wellbeing. How is it possible to make any rankings of the happiness of countries or citizens without acknowledging how safe people feel? Perhaps in next year’s report safety will also be acknowledged. We at CESAM would be happy to help to contribute to that part.

The importance of happiness

I would like to emphasise that the World Happiness Report is an important report, and is excellently written. It brings up current trends and emphasises the significance of happiness in society. The writers are appreciated scholars of happiness, and their work is important to promote happiness. It is also great that happiness has become such a visible issue and has been given greater priority by governments. 

My criticism is directed at ranking countries using narrow indicators that define happiness in measures and numbers, as well as simplifying it. How do we really benefit from these rankings? In my view, it’s important that, in every country, we need discussion, listening and a willingness to understand, in order to really know what makes people happy in each country and society.

Safety in the context of positive experience

We at CESAM are answering this call. One of our research streams focuses on safety in the context of positive experience. In addition to looking into crime and risks, which are threats to human safety, we also want to provide a positive dimension of looking into aspects which foster safety in people’s lives in public space.

CESAM blog