My 2 cents on World Happiness Report 2017

On the first day of spring 2017, the day of Nawroz, they have produced a report on happiness and called it World Happiness Report only to say that the developing, the poor, and the third world countries are also the unhappier countries. Are you serious?

Screenshot 2017-03-20 15.18.23

I am celebrating this Nawruz in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada, the 7th happiest country, alone with a heavy snowfall. Wasn’t that enough that I had to learn how unhappy were the rest of my family in my country of origin Afghanistan (141/155), bottom 14 unhappiest.

Personal matters aside, I would like to raise two points regarding the report.

First, it is about the methodology of measuring happiness. To put it in simple terms, the happiness index is created out of a combination of six variables (GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life-decisions, generosity, and perception of corruption).  The six indicators are combined with a seventh one called dystopia (A residual 1.85 plus an average of all the above indicators). Some statistical analyses are undertaken, and an average happiness index is created for each country.

Technically, the unhappiest should get a zero and the happiest a 10. It is impossible to get a zero because there is no country with zero GDP per capita and zero healthy life expectancy. But no one gets a complete 10 either, which could be mean that there is still room for the happiest nations (Norway, in this case) to be even happier.

Let’s analyze the happiest nation. Norway. Norway gets an index number of 7.537. Out of a scale of 10, that’s narrowly a B+. How happy would you be if you got a B+, a 75 out of 100? That number has a large dystopia indicator. Without the dystopia indicator, Norway gets something around 5.2 out of 10.

Screenshot 2017-03-20 12.21.08

Now, am I wrong to say that Norway is happiest not because it got 90 or 95 out of 100, but because everyone else got a number lower than Norway? So, Norway is happiest relative to everyone else. Or Norway is happier because everyone else did worse. Norway is happy at the cost of Burundi who got 2.905, and Afghanistan that got 3.794.

So, with that kind of mindset, one way to be happier is to make everyone else miserable. Ah, isn’t the report actually doing that? The report is making top countries feel good about themselves by making many other countries to feel bad about themselves.

My point is that the methodology is not an appropriate one. Based on this methodology, I would consider countries happy if they scored above 80. Not a single country did that. Otherwise, I see all countries miserable at different levels.

Second, I question the policy implications of this report. Usually, an evaluation is produced to offer ways to improve things. Since this evaluation is based on a combination of six indicators, the only lessons it could offer are that countries should improve those indicators.

  • Improve GDP per capita. Okay, that makes sense.
  • Improve health life expectancy. That’s pretty straight forward.
  • Improve social support, generosity, and perception of corruption. I find them good suggestions, but the countries have to change the social conditions to improve those indicators.
  • Enhance freedom to make life decisions. Okay, it basically means to have democracy. I get the point. I have heard that before.

Now, those are the implications of many, many reports already being produced by many, many national and international organizations. Why should we tell developing countries that they are unhappy to make them address problems related to health, education and social services? Why not help those countries improve those services with a little aid and some encouragement?

If the budget of this report was given to 70 poor and homeless people in our capital Ottawa, that would make me happier than producing a report to tell me (on a Nowruz, on the International Happiness Day, on the first day of spring 2017) that I live in the 7th happiest country in the world.

By the way, I have family members in Norway, and I wish them all the happiness in the world. To all Norwegians, Happy International Happiness Day.

To everyone else, Nawroz Mubarak. May the spring be with you.


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