Happiness can’t be measured…or can it?


Are you happy? The 2016 World Happiness Report, released today, could provide you with data to answer this question.

If you live in Denmark, then the answer is probably yes; whilst if you live in Burundi the report indicates that you probably aren't.

Image: The top 10 happiness countries, as ranked by the Report.

Data is derived from the Gallup World Poll, based on a rank that respondents gave their lives from 0 - 10, with 0 being the worst possible life and 10 being the best.

But is self-evaluation the only way to measure happiness?

Happiness Economics has long attempted to quantify happiness. Traditional economic measurements like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product, for instance, are often used to determine whether certain policies make people happier.

"if we’re looking for a single socioeconomic variable that tracks with most objective indicators of well-being, GDP per capita is hard to beat", argues Will Wilkinson.

"Even if it does not measure everything that makes life worthwhile (because nothing does), it most definitely relates positively to measures of a lot of good things, including happiness."

Other measure of happiness shy away from economic indicators.

For one, Bhutan's Gross National Happiness (GNH) index attempts to create data based on Buddhist ideals. The index is based on data for 33 indicators that look at particular aspects of nine 'life domains'. For example, the Time Use domain looks at working hours and sleeping hours, while the Community Vitality domain looks at indicators like donations and family relationships.

By looking at this wide array of life domains, the GNH measure attempts to apply a "holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing".

A 2012 index, created by The New Economics Foundation, also utilized alternate data to quantify happiness. Their Happy Planet Index (HPI) was derived from global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint. Spearheaded by Nic Marks, the index attempted to look beyond measures of productivity, like GDP, and incorporate other measures of wellbeing.

So is happiness just a number?

An important reminder from the HPI team perhaps answers this question best.

"Although the HPI measures a lot, it does not measure everything", they warn.

"Countries that do well on the HPI suffer many problems and many high-ranking countries are tainted by important human rights issues. And though one would expect the infringement of rights to negatively impact on the well-being of some people in the country, the HPI does not set out to directly measure those rights.  Furthermore, because it is likely that people directly affected by extreme human rights abuses represent a minority, the population average well-being score may not fully reflect this harm."

Since no one index can possibly account for all of a country's conditions, similar limitations should also be placed on other datasets. Indeed, a thorough examination of all available indices and the methodologies used in their calculation is best practice when applying data driven approaches to subjective topics like happiness.

Explore and download the World Happiness Report data here, the Gross National Happiness data here, and the Happy Planet Index data here.

Image: sciondriver