A Yardstick to Measure the World’s Happiness

A Yardstick to Measure the World’s Happiness


By Margaret Barthel

Since March 20th is International Day of Happiness, and since I’m writing for The Culture-ist and wanted to be appropriately global, I started Googling “World’s happiest countries.”

It quickly became clear that this is one popular topic. Forbes has a “happy-country” ranking. So does Huffington Post, The Travel Channel, CNN…the list goes on.

“Top Ten Happiest Countries:” it’s the perfect listicle.  And its components are simple: produce a list of countries that exhibit all the characteristics of a happy population by some convincing criteria, find some beautiful and exotic-looking stock photos of an associated cultural landmark, include some clever text that frequently leans on stereotypical points of national pride, and then watch the clicks come in.

Site after site claims to know where in the world the people are the happiest (and least happy). So what do these articles actually tell you? It all depends on the writer’s and the publication’s particular set of interests and values.

Huffington Post, for example, reports on the happiest/least happy nations ranking in terms of political pressure. Its ranking comes from a 2013 United Nations report on global happiness, which aggregated analyses of national economic, psychological and statistical outlooks drawn from surveys and other data. More specifically, the report defined “six happiness metrics” — “real GDP per capita, life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.”

Denmark comes out on top according to the UN report’s criteria, but what is perhaps more interesting is the way the Huffington Post spins the report. True to the liberal political roots of the site, the article explains that the report “[calls] on leaders and policymakers to consider happiness and well-being as a measure of social and economic development.” In other words: governments should ensure that citizens are happy — healthy, prosperous, free to make decisions, safe, generous — the classic liberal concept that underpins the rationale behind the social safety net.

In contrast, Forbes has a completely different idea about what makes nations happy overall. No surprises here: its measure is the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, which combines national economic outlook with well-being and overall life satisfaction. While the results are similar to Huffington Post’s, with Northern Europe (this time Norway) claiming the number one spot, the emphasis is completely different. The article establishes that, in Forbes-speak, “prosperous” is just a gloss for “happy”: after opening with a catalogue of global problems, writer Christopher Hellman asks, “Does this sound like a happy, prosperous world?” And then again, in the short mention of those poor least-happy countries, Hellman stays true to Forbes’ business-heavy slant: “The saddest, least prosperous?”

The Travel Channel takes a different approach. Using the Happy Planet Index, which looks at “life expectancy, experienced well-being, and Ecological Footprint,” Kathleen Rellihan’s “World’s Top 10 Happiest Countries” touts the happiness of citizens in El Salvador, Colombia, Vietnam, and Costa Rica, among others. Seven of the nations that make the cut are Latin American; some are rather odd choices, given recurring social and political unrest; and all the listings come with what amounts to a pitch to anyone considering a vacation. Rellihan describes Costa Rica, which tops the Travel Channel’s ranking, like this: “With the abundance of natural beauty–from beaches to volcanoes to rainforests–Costa Ricans appreciate their bounty. The local saying, ‘Pura vida,’ loosely translates as ‘Life is good.’ And here in Costa Rica, life is pure happiness, too.” Add in the stock photo of a grinning tousled surfer and it looks and sounds like a great trip to me.

So who’s got it right — the UN, the Legatum Institute, or the Happy Planet Index? Should we be looking to countries with concerned governments, riches, or gorgeous tourist destinations for the happiest people in the world?

I’d say none of these. I’m convinced that the attraction of the happiest country listicles is touch voyeuristic. We like to envision how people on other continents and from vastly different backgrounds than our own live happy and content lives that frequently have none of the trappings we associate with our own happiness. It’s fascinating to imagine and to learn from what makes people in other countries tick, no doubt about that; but on our International Day of Happiness, maybe we should stop trying to quantify and rank such a subjective feeling and concentrate instead on what gives us joy. Maybe then we’ll snag a spot on next year’s list.


Margaret BarthelAbout the writer

Margaret Barthel recently graduated from Smith College with a degree in English Language and Literature. Among other things, she’s a writer, reader, history buff, and outdoors enthusiast with deep interests in feminism, politics, and the environment. A semester abroad studying at Oxford University and exploring continental Europe, in addition to plenty of quirky family vacations, are to blame for her love of travel. Find more of her work at margaretbarthel.wordpress.com

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