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Happy Country, Happy Government: How Useful are International Happiness Rankings?

26 Mar 2014

Happy Country, Happy Government: How Useful are International Happiness Rankings?
Studying the progress of nations from a well-being perspective is becoming more and more popular. A well-being perspective offers potential advantages, including insights into what matters to people directly, and a comprehensive and relatively non-judgmental view on development. However, the contribution of a well-being lens remains limited by issues of well-being data availability, a focus on happiness, and hierarchical presentations through international happiness rankings. The authors argue for a more critical perspective on data collection and presentation.

Nadine van Dijk previously worked with UNRISD as a Research Consultant on the project Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy. She holds an MSc in Well-being and Human Development from the University of Bath.

Lizzie Spencer works for the Well-being and Poverty Pathways Research Group at the University of Bath, where she previously graduated with an MSc in Well-being and Human Development. Her interests include developing well-being assessment tools for international development monitoring and evaluation, psychosocial approaches in development, and exploring alternative models of progress for a more sustainable future.

Viviana Ramirez is an economist conducting PhD research at the University of Bath. She is exploring the connections between relationships and well-being, and the implications for policy. Her main fields of interest include well-being and subjective well-being, cross-cultural and development studies, and mixed methodologies.

How Useful are International Happiness Rankings?

Can finding out what makes us happy as individuals help us prosper better as nations? Current advances in development thinking seem to suggest this is the case. The government of Bhutan says it strives to maximize Gross National Happiness, the government of the UK wants to measure the well-being of its citizens for policy purposes, and the government of Mexico recently introduced happiness questions to its national surveys. Such national efforts are also supported by policy-oriented data presentations like the OECD Better Life Index, and the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index. The most publicly known applications of well-being data are international happiness rankings, with the most recent World Happiness Report implying that Denmark is the happiest country in the world, while Togo is the least happy country.

In a time of economic, social and environmental crises, it seems self-evident that we need to critically examine and complement the conventional yardsticks for development, such as GDP growth. This need is well-known within the United Nations, as signalled for example by the UN General Assembly adopting a 2011 resolution titled Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development . The resolution states that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and that “the gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.” Member States are encouraged to explore options for measuring happiness and well-being “with a view to guiding their public policies.”

This so called well-being lens on development offers interesting advantages, firstly by directly focussing on what matters to people at the grassroots level, echoing a trend in development thinking also embodied by current attention to local, participatory development and ‘direct giving’. Secondly, several well-being measurement toolkits provide relatively comprehensive sets of indicators, which can be seen as a great advantage over approaches focusing only on certain factors, say income or health. Thirdly, to some thinkers a well-being approach to development presents the potential to overcome the powerful distinction between ‘developed ‘and ‘developing’ countries. This would be the case if a well-being lens opens space to recognise, rather than judge, culturally-specific values and development processes. In this regard Amartya Sen’s idea of enabling people to have the capability to live the life they have reason to value reflects the respect for diversity in people’s wants and needs that a well-being lens could in theory offer.

However, does the data used currently at the national policy level support the potential identified above? We argue that the most well-known application of well-being data, so-called happiness rankings, are limited in this regard. If we are to truly take the well-being lens on development seriously, we need to find ways to improve our measures of happiness and well-being and present data in a constructive manner.

Happiness and Well-being

Happiness rankings are generally based on surveys that ask questions on what most academics in the field call subjective well-being. The distinctive characteristic of subjective well-being is that it is based on how people evaluate their lives from their own perspectives (for example, Stiglitz et al. 2009). Subjective well-being is generally related to both temporary moods, as well as broader perspectives on quality of life. Two types of measures are commonly used to capture these aspects. While some indicators account for the balance of the emotions and feelings people experience in daily life; other more general measures focus on people’s mental evaluations of their lives as a whole drawing on whatever they consider important. The latter is what happiness and life satisfaction indicators attempt to capture and these are by far the most commonly used questions in subjective well-being research. The difference between questions on temporary moods and those on one’s broader perspective on life is however not always clear and many researchers tend to use them interchangeably or have an unstated preference for one rather than the other.

Objective well-being, by contrast, concentrates not on self-reported life evaluations, but only on those aspects of life that can be externally observed (such as access to healthcare and education). Presumably what policy makers are really interested in is not only how citizens feel about their lives in the precise moment they answer a survey, but how they feel about them overall and importantly, why they do so. Therefore, we argue that the question of how to make use of well-being data in such a way that it is constructive for policy making deserves further exploration.

Issues Surrounding Happiness Data

It is understandable that researchers want to apply their findings, and that policy makers are eager for concrete results. Happiness rankings such as those presented in the World Happiness Reports satisfy those wishes by reflecting current knowledge on subjective well-being in a simple overview. However, ultimately the extent to which these rankings can usefully contribute to the development debate hinges on a number of factors related to the availability of data, the type of methods used to investigate well-being, and the way in which results are presented.

Firstly, a generally recognized issue is that there is not much global data available on subjective well-being. While certain governments such as those of Bhutan, Brazil and the UK conduct surveys on life satisfaction and thereby collect a significant amount of national data, there is not much globally comparable data available. Certain sources, such as the Gallup World Poll that collects data through surveys in over 160 countries, do offer some insights into how people evaluate their own lives. However, much more research is clearly needed before moving towards international comparisons of scores on subjective well-being indicators.

Secondly, the robustness of happiness measures across cultures and nations is still unclear, raising the question of how reliable these international comparisons would be (Ramirez 2011). This is partly because measures are developed from specific samples such as university students or populations in Western countries. These measures also promote an understanding of well-being that emphasizes a sense of achievement or individual satisfaction and that could invoke a specific cultural understanding of well-being. Such a focus can disregard other more collective and holistic understandings such as that embodied in Buen Vivir, the indigenous principle of living well included in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador.

Thirdly, aggregating individual scores into a single one that represents an entire nation can be problematic in the sense that it neglects the cultural diversity that exists within nations. Obtaining a single score for one nation assumes that nations are homogeneous entities and that no diversity of ethnic and religious groups, or of values and preferences exists. However, culture and context are known to be key determinants of how people respond to happiness surveys (see, for example, Eid and Diener 2001) and importantly on how people understand well-being (Christopher 1999).

Policy Implications

The afore-mentioned issues with current applications of happiness data could have unintended political implications. It can be difficult for policy makers to know what the outcomes presented in international happiness rankings really mean and what they can do with the information. Simply put, knowing how a nation ranks in terms of happiness does not yet indicate how to improve national well-being. As the 2013 World Happiness Report notes, it is very difficult methodologically to link the results (such as ‘happiest country’) to specific factors (for example, welfare state). It is also potentially dangerous as links that are made can influence (international) development policy, while they may not be based on comprehensive scientific analysis including both indicators of subjective and objective well-being.

Further danger lies in the potential for data manipulation: Links could be made between national happiness and specific public policies, whilst in reality the policies could have inadvertent consequences on other aspects of people’s lives.

Finally, at an international scale, these rankings could be used to prescribe a type of ‘good life’ that nations should replicate if they strive to ‘progress’ (Ramirez, 2011). Particularly this risk is caused by the choice to present happiness data in the shape of an international ranking. We believe this type of data presentation may not correspond well with the potential of a well-being lens to contribute to a development debate that is more open to interpretations stemming from various cultures and experiences. Indeed, a central benefit of a well-being approach within the development debate seems to be that it can offer a forum to learn from, but not impose, development experiences from different countries and regions. This feature of the well-being approach translates not only on the national or regional, but also on the individual level. An often cited rationale for asking people directly what matters to them, rather than using pre-determined well-being indicators in a top-down fashion, is that self-reported happiness surveys offer an opportunity for respondents to evaluate their life in whatever manner they find appropriate. In this way, happiness is freely defined by each respondent. To then use this data to organize rankings indicating which countries are performing better than others in terms of citizen happiness seems somewhat contradictory for it closes, rather than opens, the search for new development indicators that are appropriate in each context. That is, the ranking could be seen to imply which cultural or societal experiences are better than others in terms of well-being outcomes, and should therefore be emulated by those countries located in the lower part of the ranking. Of course countries scoring relatively low in happiness surveys might learn from countries that score relatively high. Yet the reverse is likely to be true at the same time, as well-being is such a complex experience shaped and influenced by many factors. In our view, an important role of a well-being lens in development is to open an international exchange of experiences that foster happiness on an equal basis. The aim of an open debate on what constitutes well-being in differing contexts is not served well by an emphasis on hierarchical forms of data presentation.

Moving the Well-being and Development Debate Forward

There is currently no universal agreement on how well-being should be measured and how it should be used to guide policy making. The debate is lively and ongoing. Some interesting alternatives to happiness approaches exist. The aforementioned indigenous understanding of Buen Vivir is an example of an alternative view on well-being, in which personal well-being is seen as inseparable from the well-being of others and of nature. The Well-being and Poverty Pathways research group at the University of Bath has developed a model of well-being which moves away from the narrow psychological and individualistic focus of happiness, and sees well-being as grounded in the wider political, cultural and relational context.

Clearly, there is great potential for applying a well-being lens to a post-2015 view of development. However, it is clear that finding the ‘happiest’ country is not the only or even the most relevant question to ask when we apply a well-being lens to the development debate. Ways to overcome the limitations mentioned in this article should be explored further. We believe that the goal of policy making guided by well-being data can be better served by dedicating resources toward collecting more and better data, and presenting that data in a constructive manner. Of course we do not argue that for fear of consequential political use, scientific data should be kept from publication. We do support, however, critical questioning of the way in which data is presented. Happiness rankings result in a hierarchical representation of nations which does not do justice to the potential of well-being approaches to development. They are currently not based on comprehensive measurement toolkits and therefore greatly oversimplify the complex experience of well-being.


Christopher, J. 1999. Situating psychological well-being: Exploring the cultural roots of its theory and research. Journal of Counseling and development, 77:141-52.

Eid, M. and E. Diener. 2001. Norms for experiencing emotions in Different Cultures: Inter- and Intranational Differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5):869–885.

Helliwell, J., R. Layard and J. Sachs. (eds). 2013. World Happiness Report 2013. New York: UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Available at: http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/09/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf

Ramirez, V. 2011. Ranking by happiness: A new world order. Thesis (M.Sc.). University of Bath, United Kingdom. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/5785126/Ramirez_V._2011_Ranking_by_Happiness_A_new_world_order

Stiglitz, J., A. Sen and J.-P. Fitoussi. 2009. Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Available at: http://www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais.pdf


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.