A Welter of Well-Being Studies

A Welter of Well-Being Studies

Why you should care

It’s about time we ranked countries according to something other than GDP. If only we could figure out how.

Where in the world does happiness lie? Or, more precisely, where can you live the best life?

The U.N. analyzed the question this year and came up with Denmark. But according to a Gallup survey, it’s Paraguay and Venezuela. But wait! What about the Skoll Forum’s Social Progress Index, which says Sweden?

Welcome to the lovely morass of global well-being rankings. For decades, gross domestic product (GDP) reigned supreme as the measure of national well-being, and the Kingdom of Bhutan’s annual measure of gross national happiness was considered quirky at best. But recent years have seen a shift in how global policymakers think about the good life, and now they have a spate of new studies to show for it. As of 2013, happiness even has its own day, March 20, which the U.N. declared the first International Day of Happiness. It said it hoped to “better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development.”

The market value of a country’s goods and services doesn’t tell us about the health and joy of its citizens.

There’s no question that GDP isn’t enough to measure progress or the good life. How could it be? The market value of a country’s goods and services doesn’t tell us how many of its people are poor, whether its forests are flourishing or dying or about the health and joy of its citizens. “GDP was never intended to be a measure of well-being,” says Romina Boarini, senior economist and lead researcher for the OECD’s How’s Life report, whose second edition will be published in November. “And it’s not the right metric to tell us whether society is moving in the right direction.”

Indeed, according to the Skoll Forum, “diseases of prosperity” like obesity and environmental degradation can plague nations with robust GDP growth. The Forum would prefer considering economic growth just one factor in an overall measure of well-being and progress. For the record, the United States ranks 16th on the Skoll Forum’s Foundations of Well-Being Index, just ahead of Georgia and well behind northern European countries, Israel and Korea.

But it’s not quite clear what to take away from the cacaphony of well-being indices. Except, perhaps, that humans should avoid living in a war-torn country, like Syria, or a nation without clean water. (Gee, thanks.)

Where to Find Your Bliss

Where to Find Your Bliss

Source Christian Sauter/Gallery Stock

We still have questions about whether there are waterproof measures of happiness.That’s because tracking well-being is nowhere near as straightforward as measuring GDP growth. Happiness research is still an emerging field, and the welter of well-being studies measure it in different ways. Some emphasize civic engagement, say, over longevity, and vice versa. Perhaps wisely, the OECD’s report doesn’t even rank countries. Instead it allows users to develop their own, customized well-being rankings by weighting each of 11 categories, such as environment, health, civic engagement and life satisfaction.

Maybe the biggest bugaboo is that well-being studies typically rely on some measure of self-reported happiness. “We still have questions about whether there are waterproof measures of happiness,” says Boarini. Hoping to create some standardization in the field, the OECD in March published a manual on surveying happiness with guidance on reducing bias through the order and phrasing of questions.

Still, some nations take these polls very seriously — both for purposes of propaganda and for policy. In 2011, Gallup pegged Singaporeans as the least happy beings on the planet — er, um, those who ranked lowest on the “positive experience index.” The last-place finish precipitated a good deal of national soul searching into happiness. One diagnosis was that Singaporeans were too type A: too much work, not enough play.

And so — in typical type-A fashion — Singapore tried to make its citizens happier. StarHub, a PR firm, conducted a ”happy everywhere” campaign. And the Health Promotion Board and the Youth Council supported a youth movement called the Happiness Revolution.

By the next year, Gallup reported, Singapore logged the largest year-to-year increase on the positive emotions index — perhaps, Gallup surmised, because of the “unprecedented attention leaders and the media gave the findings last year.”

Can a nation truly will itself into well-being, find happiness through focus and flashy campaigns? We’ll look for the next economist’s study for that answer. Until then, let us know: What do you think is the best way to measure a country’s happiness?

Watch Singapore’s campaign to get happy:

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