Carlsberg may need to either reconsider its ‘World’s Happiest Nation’ slogan, or relocate to Norway. There will be consternation in Denmark, which has been knocked off its coveted number one spot by Norway’s score of 7.5 on the 0 to 10 Cantril ladder in this year’s World Happiness Report. This widely-cited and immensely important publication, led by economists John Helliwell, Jeffrey Sachs, and Richard Layard, confirms that ‘social’ factors correlate strongly with life satisfaction worldwide.

Personal happiness may oscillate between extremes in a matter of minutes, but it would be a little odd if aggregate national scores for self-reported life satisfaction among well-governed and largely happy nations showed significant change from one year to the next. Nonetheless, the editors have found interesting trends to report in each of the five years since the first edition.

Some may feel, in any case, that 7.5 is already either peak happiness or optimal happiness, and that the real interest lies in countries with much lower scores where there is the biggest potential for happification. This year Bhutan-watchers may raise an eyebrow at its score of 5.1, just on the mid-point between misery and happiness, and at 97th place ranking below even Somalia. For too long, naïve people have clung wilfully to their belief that just because Bhutan’s teenager king made a joke about ‘Gross National Happiness’ in the 1970s, or perhaps because it’s the only country in the world without traffic lights, Bhutan must be one of the happiest countries in the world. Faring rather better, and despite reluctant inclusion of its less happy ‘noncitizen’ population in the surveys, the United Arab Emirates with its new Ministry of Happiness (the first in the world) is up in 21st place with a 6.6.

Most African countries are thankfully progressing rapidly in terms of economic growth and poverty reduction, but there’s still a long way to go and in several African countries misery remains rife: it’s doubtful whether anyone in the Central African Republic will even notice that they’re this year’s unhappiest country.

Although the country rankings will continue to be the main headline-grabbers, the more interesting take-home messages are about the factors that correlate with life satisfaction. There are two really strong messages about these correlations in the report. First, as in previous reports it is confirmed that contrary to romantic beliefs ‘GDP’ (still the dominant headline indicator for ‘the economy’ worldwide) correlates very strongly with life satisfaction. This is important, because several frankly irresponsible survey editors and reporters have in the past grabbed our attention by claiming that money and economic transactions are scarcely relevant to happiness. It is now beyond reasonable doubt that for most people in most countries in the world, so-called ‘economic’ factors such as personal income and national growth correlate strongly with life satisfaction.

Second, ‘social factors’ (following the conventional if hard-to-forgive habit of pretending that ‘the economy’ isn’t itself a ‘social factor’) are also strongly correlated. Country scores for social support, generosity, freedom, and perceptions of corruption are all significantly linked to life satisfaction scores.

At risk of seeming like a spoil-sport, I should point out that the report would have been more scientifically plausible, albeit less fun to read, if the authors had taken more care to remind us that they’re mainly discussing correlations, and that they haven’t provided clear evidence of the ’causes’ or ‘determinants’ of happiness. Like nearly all economists and statisticians worldwide, the authors frequently resort to causal language (saying that specific factors ‘explain’ patterns in the life satisfaction self-reports, or that factors are shown by the correlations to be ‘crucial’ or ‘influences’ or ‘important factors’ for happiness) even though they know that they’re reporting on correlations. Chapter 5 is even titled ‘The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery’ despite the fact that no causal evidence is on offer.

As well as problematic causal claims, there are also pseudo-accuracies and implausible albeit entertaining thought experiments. The USA chapter makes the wildly speculative claim that its GDP would need to rise to ‘around $133,000’ (from its current $53,000) to compensate for the damage to happiness caused by adverse trends in social support, freedom, corruption, and generosity (p.180). Only in the fantasy world of a pathologically numerophilic statistician could this seem like a plausible thought experiment. Try scribbling down a little list of the assumptions being made here (e.g. about how the scores are derived; about the multiple factors that cause observed correlations; and about the difficulty of predicting the future from the past), and you’ll get a sense of just how ridiculous such a claim is.

And who is this wild speculator, you ask? None other than Jeffrey Sachs, one of the most influential and famous economists on the planet. He’s right to point out that social factors matter and that they’re rather neglected in USA political discourse. Although these are matters of common sense, there’s no harm in sometimes providing research evidence that confirms what we already know. But it’s far from clear that the reputation of happiness scholarship is well served when economists try to squeeze predictive and pseudo-scientific claims like this out of immensely uncertain data.

Source: World Happiness Report 2017, pp. 20-22.

Notably, the word ‘explain’ occurs roughly 100 times in the report – more than twice the occurrences of the word ‘correlate’. Probably most readers won’t appreciate, however, that when economists say ‘explain’ they don’t really mean ‘explain’. What they mean is that in their world of number-processing, they’ve spotted some interesting co-variation. All humans, including statisticians, look for stories in the patterns they observe, and it’s extremely hard to resist the temptation to claim that correlations reveal causal narratives. If there are strong correlations between GDP and aggregate national life satisfaction scores, of course people are going to assume this means that the economic is ‘crucial for happiness’, or that growth has caused happiness. But the data don’t tell us this. They confirm our hunch that economic factors are a strong candidate when we look for explanations of how happiness happens. But it’s also likely that both GDP and life satisfaction scores go up and down together because they are both influenced by other factors like democracy, peace, and education. It’s also very likely that at least some amount of the variation in GDP (and of other factors such as employment) is caused by happiness.

It has often been shown that happy people are more productive, engaged, healthy, and creative. It is revealing that happiness statisticians refer to this as ‘reverse causality’ – i.e. assuming that it runs contrary to our default causal assumptions. In other words, by default, researchers assume that external conditions cause happiness (or misery). If something that goes on in the mind actually causes changes in the non-mental world (the body, activities, the environment), researchers express surprise. Except, that is, if those changes are caused by mental adversities. Chapter 5 shows particularly strong interest in how happiness is influenced by ‘mental health’. Puzzled? Well you should be, because mental health is a major part of what most people understand ‘happiness’ to be, so it can hardly count as a ‘determinant’. But then we learn that the authors see ‘mental health’ as entirely synonymous with ‘mental illness’, and that they’ve measured it with eight entirely pathological indicators such as depression, fear, and loneliness.

The World Happiness Reports are a fantastically important source of knowledge about world trends. They definitely tick the ‘beyond GDP’ box that seems to have become the core rallying cry of the global happiness measurement movement. But they are a long way from ticking the ‘beyond measurement’ box that is so crucial if we are to foster nontrivialising discussions about happiness. So let’s hope that future editions pay more substantial attention to the many positive mental strengths and social qualities that might ‘explain’ wellbeing. They’ll need to explore qualitative and experimental evidence on happiness. And they’ll need to get help from people who are less welded to numbers than their current team of economists are.

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