Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Who's Happy and Why?
Ethan Zuckerman, 25 Feb 07
Article Photo

The founding fathers of the United States declared independence from Great Britain with the memorable phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness“. The phrase was inserted by Thomas Jefferson as a departure from Adam Smith’s more capitalistic formulation, “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” (The frequent blurring of property and happiness in American poplar consciousness may well trace itself back to this tension…)

In recent years, some governments - notably the government of Bhutan - have suggested that a measure of gross national happiness might be a better evaluation of national priorities than a purely economic measure like “gross domestic product per capita”. And academic journals have appeared, dedicated to happiness studies, or the more academic-sounding “Subjective Well-Being”. These journals produce lists of happiest and unhappiest nations, which are always good for a quick media story, proclaiming Denmark the happiest place on earth and Burundi the most miserable.

Adrian White from the University of Leicester has compiled a map of global happiness, using responses to the Satisfaction With Life Scale questionaire, a simple document designed to measure subjective well-being. It’s so simple that I can include it in its entirety:

Respond to these statements with a number from 1-7, where 1 represents strongly disagree and 7 represents strongly agree:

- In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
- The conditions of my life are excellent.
- I am satisfied with my life.

- So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

- If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

If you ask those questions of people in 180 nations and normalize the data so that your unhappiest country (Burundi) equals 100 and your happiest (Denmark) equals 273 and color code all countries by their happiness (darker equals happier), you get this lovely map.

A quick glance at the map tells you that Africa’s an unhappy place and that North Americans, Western Europeans and Aussies are happy folks. My first guess was that the distribution of happiness correlated closely with wealth. White asserts that the strongest correlation is to health, followed by wealth and access to education.

I played a bit with the subjective well-being data and graphed most of the data points from White’s work against life expectancy and saw a pretty some correlation (R2 = 0.3779, which is close to the R=0.7 White asserts…) What interested me was the fact that the countries seemed to cluster into three distinct areas: countries that were happy and healthy, countries that weren’t very healthy or happy, and a group of depressive nations that were healthy but unhappy.

Click on image to enlarge

(If I were a statistician, I’d do something clever like run an ANOVA test to demonstrate variance between the groups and some way to segment the set. But I’m a geek with too much time on my hands, so I just drew some circles and lines. If you’re a statistician and want to play with this data, lemme know…)

Eliminate that top cluster and you could get a pretty good equation to model the data from the black line and the lower red line. Eliminate the bottom cluster and you could use the top red line and black line. In other words, it looks a little like there’s two separate groups of nations here, one which has a strong relationship between health and happiness, another where that relationship is much less clear.

Click on image to enlarge
Most interesting to me are the nations that are outliers of the curve - nations that appear to be unusually happy or unusually unhappy as based on their life expectancy. Nations in the upper right corner of the graph are ones we’d expect to be happy, as their citizens have long lives (Denmark, Switzerland). In the lower left of the graph, we’ve got nations we’d expect to be unhappy because life is short (Zimbabwe, Burundi).

The other corners are the interesting ones. The upper left corner are nations that are unhappy despite long lifespans. You’ll note some common characteristics to these nations: they’re members of the former Soviet Union. (They’re also very cold, but other chilly nations like Canada, Iceland, and Scandinavia are quite happy…) Despite a long lifespan, Armenia is one of the unhappiest nations on earth (something I can confirm from my visits to the country.)

It’s harder to characterize the lower right corner, where nations are happier than we would expect. Bhutan lives in this corner, which we might expect from the country that invented gross national happiness. And nations that are both very happy and unusually happy include a number of tropical paradises, suggesting that if you, personally, would like to be happy, moving to the Bahamas might not be a bad start.

But moving further down the happiness scale, we see a number of nations that are happier than we’d expect based on their lifespans. Many of these nations are in sub-Saharan Africa, and a number of them (Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Mali, Botswana, Namibia) are nations that people often point to when pointing towards the hope for African growth and development. Others include nations where civil war has settled into relative peace and prosperity (Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique.)

You could offer an interesting narrative based on this - the idea that nations are happiest when citizens think things are getting better, saddest in nations where things seem to be getting worse. Not all former Soviet nations are depressed, but those that are include some nations that fared well under the old regime and are struggling in a new economy. And the happy African nations are the ones where things are changing from very bad to not so bad, or have the potential to become leaders on the continent. As Laurie Anderson asked in her beautiful “Same Time Tomorrow”, “Are things getting better? Or are they getting worse?”

Unfortunately, there’s another way to explain the African results - life isn’t too bad in Namibia, for instance, except for one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. (The same could be said for Botswana, Zambia and several other countries in this cluster.) HIV brings down the life expectancy creating a cluster of countries where life isn’t as hard as it is in Burundi, but it is tragically short. Find a way of meaningfully addressing HIV and these countries might join the family of happy, healthy nations instead of being a statistical anomaly and humanitarian disaster.

Is a post on happiness allowed to end on this sort of unhappy note? This one does.

Bookmark and Share


Interesting article. Just wanted to clarify that it was John Locke who coined the phrase "life, liberty and property".

I've been to Russia and agree that it is not a happy place. I also agree that the reason is the decline (or at least stagnation) of the standard of living. When things are getting worse, it's hard to be happy. Based on this analysis, we should be aiming for slow but steady increases in health & wealth - the biggest threats to our happiness are sharp downturns in the economy or a disease pandemic. On the economic side, a constant cycle of boom and bust leaves us less happy than a steady ship. So economic policy that slows the economy in times of boom, and stimulates in times of bust is good policy not just for 'growth' but for our subjective well-being as well. Keynes was onto something.

Posted by: Will Sacks on 25 Feb 07

It's worth considering that the aftereffects of the Armenian genocide, and the very little public attention that has been payed to it, may be a large contributing factor to the unhappiness of the Armenians.

Posted by: DG on 25 Feb 07

I currently live in a southern region of Germany called "Schwaben". The people living here are known to be constantly moaning about everyone and everything.
Interesting is, that this unhappiness is the fuel for their drive to constantly make things better.
"Schwaben" is one of germanies most inventive places.

Posted by: Thomas on 26 Feb 07

For anyone wishing to explore this further, there is an excellent book 'Happiness - Lessons from a New Science' by Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics and a member of the UK House of Lords. He expounds policies which are evidence-based around how best to increase 'Gross National Happiness' as opposed to GDP, and comes to some surprising and radical conclusions. (Though the book is aimed primarily at 'national' politics in developed countries.)

One of the best books I have read for a long time.

Chris Preist

Posted by: Chris Preist on 26 Feb 07

I live in Burundi and while I would agree that it isn't one of the happiest places on Earth to live, it certainly isn't all that bad. Most Burundians who I know are actually fairly happy people, despite widespread corruption, human rights abuses, a high HIV+ rate, poor healthcare, low life expectancy (44 years), high unemployment, drought and flooding, crop diseases, and population pressure amongst other challenges. The biggest change in the positive column: the country has become relatively peaceful over the past three years and more and more politically stable. I think it would be worse to live in places like Chad, Somalia, Myanmor, Zimbabwe,DR Congo...

Posted by: KD on 26 Feb 07

I wrote my dissertation on subjective well-being (see, at the bottom of the page titled "About Me") so this post was of particular interest. There are four main psychological processes that affect well-being, one of which you mentioned - the fact that well-being is relative to previous experiences, the other one that stands out for me is the fact that we will almost always adapt to our circumstances. From a ecological point of view I find this quite interesting because no matter what level of material wealth we reach, we will always base our well-being on the small day-to-day alterations. Hence, there is no reason to create the vast amounts of material objects that we use, as they will not improve our happiness. Personally, I think westerners and their political parties should put well-being as their main priority, instead of "wealth creation", then we would not only be a happier society, but probably in a better position ecologically as well.

Posted by: Ian Crawford on 26 Feb 07

Great post! One factor haven't been explored is that closer connections between people and community promote happiness as the thesis of Robert Putnam's book 'Bowling Alone'. Perhaps this can partly explain why people in repressive countries are unhappy because people tend to trust each other less.

Regarding relativeness and adaptation, one thing for spoiled brats to do is to learn or live with poorer communities. That experience will hopefully help them appreciates what they have and dampen the materialistic pursuit.

Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 26 Feb 07

Bhutan is facing some surprising challenges, relatet to the increasing education-literacy.
To fo deepre see here:

Posted by: eric ezechieli on 1 Mar 07



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg