It was one of my mother’s favourite jokes. “Money doesn’t buy happiness”, someone would say, and she would retort, “No, but it buys a better brand of misery”. Money might not be sufficient for happiness, but she suspected it made it very difficult to be truly, deeply, lastingly unhappy. It took away one nagging problem that could render you unable to make good choices and grow as a human being.
The latest ‘World Happiness Report’, out a few days ago, suggests she was right. The list of happiest countries, at least as measured in this report, looks much the same as the list of the highest-income countries. Finland is top, all five Nordic countries and both the Australasian nations are in the top 10 (Australia is 10th). Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada make up the remainder.
The same is true of the least happy countries: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and the Central African Republic may be ravaged by war, but all of the bottom 10 are poor, and all except Syria and Yemen are African. These places can’t even afford a decent brand of misery. (You can also explore the ‘World Happiness Report’ data on a map.)
The report scores are compiled from surveys that ask respondents to assess their lives on a scale from “best possible” to “worst possible”; that’s what the report calls “happiness”. You might wonder whether this is right; honour, duty, decency, learning and helping can be as important to a good life as being deliriously happy.
That’s why some researchers talk about “life satisfaction”. But “happiness” will do in a pinch. And these results pretty much echo other recent analyses, notably by the economist Betsey Stevenson and her Australian husband, Justin Wolfers. Money isn’t everything, but it’s a lot.
That’s a pretty important finding, given how much of political debate consists of arguments about whether something will raise or lower the GDP.
Nevertheless, we don’t really know with any certainty what most of the happiness data means.
It may be that these surveys are telling us something about people’s ability to compare their lives with other people’s.
For instance, in China and the US, two countries with large disparities in income, people were more unhappy than their income, or their recent rise in income, would indicate. China, for instance, ranks 86th, even though most Chinese have seen massive income improvements in the past 40 years.
If you move from rural to urban China, for instance, you will on average double your income – but you will likely report feeling worse about your life than someone who stayed in the village. Perhaps this is because every day you will see people vastly more wealthy than you.
The same seems true of any low-income US citizen who can turn on a TV: comparisons are everywhere. The survey ranks the US 18th for happiness, far lower than its GDP per person would suggest it should be. Stevenson and Wolfers report that US “life satisfaction” has actually been going backwards since the 1970s.
Will residents of Finland, Norway, Denmark and Australia be much happier when our incomes have doubled? The numbers suggest we will be at least a little more satisfied.
At the same time, we might have something to learn from some of the small outliers on the happiness rankings – lower-income nations that have created a happy population despite their lack of riches. Relatively low-income Costa Rica, for instance, ranks 13th out of 156 nations in the ‘World Happiness Report’; and Panama ranks 27th, even though both have GDP per capita well below half of Australia’s.
It occurs to me that both these nations, along with fourth-ranked Iceland, punch well above their weight in major global soccer tournaments. So perhaps when we compare happiness to incomes, we’re looking at the wrong thing. Maybe it’s World Cup success that buys you happiness.