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Monday, March 20, 2017

The World Happiness Report

An article, The 15 happiest countries in the world, appeared on Bloomberg this morning:

Chances are, if you live in the U.S., you feel worse today than you did 10 years ago. Don’t worry, it’s not you. This is a national problem: America’s rank on the happiness scale is falling.

When it comes to happiness, the U.S. ranked 19th among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2016, down from third among 24 countries on a similar measure in 2007, according to the World Happiness Report, produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and funded by the Ernesto Illy Foundation.

Money, at least in the U.S., doesn’t buy happiness, the report found. Even as the country pulled off an economic turnaround, with increases in income and unemployment falling to historic lows, Americans are becoming less happy...

The report is based on an annual survey of 1,000 people in more than 150 countries that simply asks them to rank, on a scale of 0 to 10, whether they are living their best life.

Researchers then use six measures to try to understand the results: gross domestic product per capita, life expectancy, support from relatives or friends, charitable giving, freedom to make life choices, and perceived levels of government and corporate corruption.

Rankings are created using the average of three years of surveys. Nordic countries, of course, were the happiest. In the list covering 2014-16, Norway moved into the top spot as the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark and Iceland. The least happy nations: Syria, Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic. The U.S. ranked 14th on the most recent rankings average....

Jeffrey Sachs, one of the editors of the report, suggested five means by which to improve social trust: campaign finance reform, policies aimed at reducing income inequality (such as public financing of health), improved social relations between native born and immigrant Americans, working to move past the fear of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and improved access to high-quality education.

The political nature of Sachs' report is transparent: his suggestions for increased happiness are basically a Democratic wish list. And, like any good liberal, he completely ignores the most salient factor distinguishing the happiest countries from the unhappiest ones: their demographics. 

Lists like this pop up from time to time, and I always wonder, how exactly do they measure happiness? I've seen similar lists where people are actually asked whether they're happy or not. But how can people possibly know -- in any remotely objective sense -- how their level of emotional happiness compares to others' unless they've inhabited other peoples' minds? 

What these happiness reports fail to take into account is human nature. You can put two people into the exact same situation, and they would experience different levels of happiness from it. Some peoples' mental equilibrium dials seem to have been set to "happy," and others to "disgruntled." That's just their nature. 

In fact, one's baseline happiness probably has an inverse relationship with one's quality of life. If you're the type to be satisfied with whatever nature has provided, you're less likely to work hard at improving GDP, making headway in medicine, and maintaining a functioning, democratic form of government which guarantees freedoms for its citizens. 

Conversely, those most easily disgruntled would be more likely to work to improve their lot. 

It also seems a little ironic that Scandinavians, who have always had a reputation for being morose -- remember those dour Swedes with their shortened days and the world's highest suicide rate? -- now rank highest in "happiness." 

If you were to call this a "quality of life" index, using the same criteria, its conclusions would be more credible. Otherwise, it seems silly.

Meanwhile, in the interests of further equality -- which seems to be one of Sachs' goals -- Norway should voluntarily decrease its level of happiness by following the lead of its neighbor Sweden and import more Muslims. 


Mark Caplan said...

Japan enjoys social homogeneity, no immigration, low unemployment, low income inequality, low crime, very high GDP per capita. In the happiness ranking, Japan came in 51st out of 53.

John Craig said...

Mark --
Is that a different happiness report? The article quoted above says that they surveyed 1000 people in "more than 150 countries." (Which actually makes me wonder about something else: do they only survey 7 or so people per country? Or did they mean 1000 people in each of those 150 countries? It's not clear from the way the article was written.)

I have to wonder about Japan. People over there do have a lot of pressure to both do their bit and also toe the line, i.e., work hard and behave. And they do have a relatively high suicide rate. But still, I wonder if there were cultural differences involved in the way they answered the questions. You would think they'd have a higher level of life satisfaction, given everything.

Mark Caplan said...

I downloaded the actual report (link below), but didn't notice the chart of countries continues over multiple pages. Japan does rank 51, below Russia (49) and only slightly above Algeria (53). Still, it's way above, say, Haiti (145).

Another thing Japan has going for it (supposedly) is extremely long life spans. I heard on BBC radio that a girl born in Japan today can expect to live to 107!

"World Happiness Report 2017" (chart begins on page 22)

John Craig said...

Mark --
Thank you for that. Interesting. Japan ranks behind Taiwan and Malaysia, but ahead of South Korea and China and Hong Kong. (I didn't see North Korea on the list, I'd have to think they'd rank pretty low.)

Yes, Japan does have the world's longest life expectancy. But I wonder if that doesn't take away from its overall happiness level: how happy can you be at 95? My Japanese grandfather lives to 103, and he smoked a pack a day until he was in his early 80's, at which point he cut down to something like 6 cigarettes a day.

Mark Caplan said...

Not just the frail and lonely elderly are less happy. I imagine that many young people in Japan also become unhappy when they learn they are sentenced to live 107 years.

John Craig said...

Mark --
Ha, I suppose that's true.

Anonymous said...

Ignoring the methods of this study, and whether it has any validity based on the questions asked - I bet the US and Japan really are suffering a happiness deficit.

There may be many root causes, but here is a big one - and in the US it could, and should be fixed by new employment law.

US and Japan have jockeyed for the 'greatest number of hours worked per week'.

In the US this is enabled by salaried employment law - where an employer can demand any number of hours of work per week, and the employee has no recourse - either do it, or be fired.

Every salaried job I've had lists my hourly pay, based on a 40 hour week. When employers extract extra time from their employees - its free labor for employers; and 'volunteer' labor from the employee.

As of a couple of years ago, anyone making above $23,000 a year could be placed on salary (this number was increased to $48K about one year ago). Two years ago I talked to a young woman at a Subway who told me that she had just been made a 'manager' and was being required to work 60 hours a week making sandwiches. What a windfall for the Subway owner, who I'm sure makes real money, while abusing this young woman whose nominal wage might have been around $13 per hour for a 40 hour week, but at 60 hours effectively earns $8.60.

I've personally seen what employers have been doing for years - fire people, or let them leave through attrition, and don't re-hire. Just dump the work on the remaining people - they can work harder and longer hours. More profit for ownership - lower quality of life for the workers - and this includes 'white collar' workers.

The minimum annual income for 'salary' employment should be increased to $250K. At that level, if you are in upper management, ownership, and may aspire to working your life away in the hopes of true wealth and early retirement - go for it.

Otherwise -what could be more fair than this: you work an hour, you get paid for an hour. And the employer pays for an hour, they get an hour of work.

Further, with 95 million people not working in this country - eliminating salaried employment would leave little incentive for employers to abuse the workforce as they currently do. Once employers started having to pay time and half for all those extra hours, they'd be hiring like crazy to avoid it.

A 40 hour work week is plenty. People need time to be parents, stay fit, and enjoy a hobby, etc. Workers are inordinately stressed in today's society - and its no wonder people are unhappy in the US.

- Ed