March 28, 2024


Is the World Happiness Report flawed?

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Measuring happiness for a single person is a tricky proposition. Now, imagine attempting that for several countries and compiling it into a report to be released every year. That’s exactly what the World Happiness Report is, released on March 20 annually.

The term ‘happiness’ can be subjective. Yes, a general state of happiness might be a common trait among a lot of people. But it still seems complex to identify, aggregate, and rank countries based on how happy their citizens are. Nevertheless, since we have the report and index, the question is, how airtight is the methodology and ranking? Is it fundamentally sound or is it flawed?


On July 12, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 20 the International Day of Happiness. It recognised the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals of aspiration for all people and recognised happiness in public policy goals. It’s on this day that the World Happiness Report is released every year.

The resolution was initiated by Bhutan. It has recognised national happiness concerning national income since the 1970s. It adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product. During the 66th session of the General Assembly, the country hosted a high-level meeting on “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm”.

So, how does happiness get measured for the rankings and reports? The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and global researchers analyse data collected from the Gallup World Poll. The poll gets responses from over 1 lakh people around the world. People rank their happiness using the steps of a ladder as a measurement. The first and lowest steps and the tenth and the highest steps represent the worst and best of a person’s life, respectively.

There are six factors the SSDN considers – social support, GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption. Last year’s report had some additional parameters like trust, state efficiency, and social media’s impact.

Let’s get a little scientific. Scientists often use the term “subjective well-being” since it includes happiness and life satisfaction. On a basic level, what has been observed is that countries with higher GDPs per capita are happier. It’s understandable since people there are more likely to have better access to goods and public services. Like Finland, for example. It has been on top of the UN rankings for several consecutive years.

Ironically, the World Happiness Report doesn’t make everyone happy when it gets released. Many aren’t convinced about the methodologies and see biases. Is the report and ranking fundamentally flawed? Or is it a good enough data point to help gauge where the world is at happiness-wise?

VIEW: It’s a useful exercise and tool

It needs to be said that the UN’s report on world happiness isn’t some definitive, legally binding document. It just happens to be a ranking by the UN after they decided on a particular way to measure happiness. That doesn’t mean it’s useless; far from it. The point of a report is to present a snapshot or an overview of the general state of happiness worldwide. There’s greater significance given to national happiness in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The best way to look at the report is to see the rankings. Why has Finland been number 1 for several years? It’s because its citizens feel socially, economically, and physically safe. Finland is usually followed by countries like Denmark and Norway. These countries have low crime rates, excellent public education and health policies. It stands to reason why they’re ranked very high.

At the other end are countries like Pakistan and India that aren’t even in the top 100. They’re ranked low because of higher crime rates, and public education and health policies aren’t as robust. It’s not really rocket science. While some might see these yearly happiness rankings and reports as trivial, this type of data provides an overview of the gaps in development policies and people’s perceptions of how their governments perform.

COUNTERVIEW: Biases on display

Happiness being a subjective term should be the basis here. Some have argued that what we define as happiness doesn’t apply to the developing and underdeveloped world. The lack of cultural considerations in the methodology means the rankings are often biased toward the West or Global North. Culture has always been a sticking point for the behavioural definitions of happiness. It’s nearly impossible to provide a blanket statement on how happy people are in a country like India with its different cultures.

The questions asked are also ambiguous. This results in people misinterpreting what’s being asked, and in turn, the surveyors miscalculate what the answers mean. Then there’s the criteria. Governments routinely work hard to maximise GDP per capita, one of the criteria. More goods being produced doesn’t translate to those being equally distributed. It doesn’t matter if goods and services are only enjoyed by a small fraction of the population.

The latest World Happiness Report has India ranked 126 out of 143 countries. Argentina, battling crippling inflation and a recession is ranked 48. Iran, with its dubious human rights record, is ranked 100. These don’t make sense and show why such a report is fundamentally flawed and shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. We don’t really need a single happiness measure. A better approach would be an index of well-being aspects made up of things people actually care about.

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What is your opinion on this?
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a) The World Happiness Report isn’t flawed.

b) The World Happiness Report is flawed.


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