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What can we learn from the latest World Happiness Report?

Now in its tenth year, the World Happiness Report offers an insight into the progress that has been made – both in terms of understanding the determinants of global wellbeing and in recognising the most important challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The World Happiness Report (WHR) is based on the science of wellbeing, which uses quantitative methods to understand how different life experiences influence people’s happiness and quality of life. Many researchers and policy-makers believe that the things people find most important in their lives should be a guiding force behind policy design.

But some remain sceptical of whether this is the best approach. An important question for those who doubt the usefulness of wellbeing science is whether stated happiness – currently the most common way of measuring a person’s wellbeing – is a reliable measure of their true happiness.

Evidence indicates that this is likely to be the case. Life satisfaction correlates well with relevant measures of brain activity (Urry et al, 2014). It also does a good job at predicting how people will behave. For example, people who are dissatisfied with their job or with a marriage are much more likely to divorce or quit in the future (Idstad et al, 2015; Clark, 2001).

People are also more likely to vote for governments under which they experience higher levels of wellbeing (Ward, 2020; Ward et al, 2020). And negative events or experiences, such as war, lack of freedom and low life expectancy, correlate with low happiness scores across countries (WHR, 2016).

What does past evidence on happiness show?

Last week marked a decade since the first release of the World Happiness Report. The annual report is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and is focused on monitoring wellbeing, as well as its causes and consequences around the world.

In its first iteration (WHR, 2012), the editors laid out their vision for a world in which happiness is seen as a central goal for national governments. In the ten reports since, empirical evidence has been presented to highlight that happiness is neither too vague nor too subjective a concept to merit this attention. Today, the report plays an important role in measuring global happiness (using the World Gallup Poll data, among other sources), and in monitoring changing trends.

While happiness increased globally up until 2011, it has been falling ever since. But this trend masks large differences in happiness across countries, with clear winners and losers.

For countries that have seen large improvements in their happiness, such as Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, increases in GDP per capita have played a part. So too have increases in healthy life expectancy and improved perceptions of corruption or of lack of freedom. We also know that some countries, such as Afghanistan, Lebanon and Venezuela, have experienced a large drop in their average happiness, with almost all these countries having been affected by war, famine or deprivation.

There is also significant variation in happiness within individual countries. Three-quarters of differences in life evaluation come from individuals living in the same place, rather than people living in different countries (WHR, 2016). Increasing inequality, both in terms of GDP and happiness, has accentuated the gap between people living in the same areas.

The experiences of unemployment, loneliness or poor mental health are some of the most important predictors of misery, with income and education also playing a smaller role (Clark et al, 2018).

National governments around the world can play a part in reducing misery by designing policies that target its main causes, such as expanding treatment for mental health disorders or investing in programmes that help people to re-enter employment. Policies focused on these issues could both increase happiness levels and decrease happiness inequality within one country – two important measures to watch if people’s quality of life is to improve.

Happiness trends in 2022

Last year’s report dealt almost entirely with the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 crisis. It shows that people have been remarkably resilient and that global happiness scores have been largely stable despite this unexpected shock (WHR, 2021).

This year’s report (WHR, 2022), released last week, reflects on the nature of a changing world, where people are still adjusting to the post-pandemic reality. New evidence also shows that happiness matters to people more than ever.

A striking finding of the 2022 report is that interest in subjective wellbeing has increased sharply in the last decade. In a meta-analysis of written text over the past 25 years, the authors find that entries associated with happiness have surpassed entries related to GDP, perhaps suggesting that people are increasingly concerned with wellbeing and less focused on standard economic measures of progress.

Turning to the global outlook, while average life evaluations remained relatively stable throughout the Covid-19 crisis, this trend masks the fact that certain groups have fared better than others. For example, the latest report finds a growing gap in happiness between the young and the old – a worrying trend given the impact of the pandemic on the labour market prospects of young workers and on the experiences of those still in education.

But the pandemic has also led to a positive shift in benevolence. This change, seen in all regions of the world, is evidenced by charitable donations, increased volunteering and a willingness to help complete strangers. The pandemic has also emphasised the importance of trust, of strong community ties and of good institutions. Better happiness outcomes are reported in countries that score high on these metrics and where inequality is comparatively low.

Looking to the future and the role of public policy

Recent technological advances have opened new possibilities for reliably measuring and explaining the happiness of people around the world. For example, machine learning techniques now allow researchers to analyse text quickly by looking for certain patterns that they can then categorise. Using this method on social media content makes it possible to record and classify people’s expressed feelings, providing a real-time metric of how wellbeing is changing (WHR, 2022).

In a separate development, new advances in genetics can help to explore the role of genes in explaining differences in wellbeing. Twin studies show that 30-40% of differences in happiness between people are linked to genetic factors, while the remaining differences are determined entirely by environment.

Researchers are working on creating ‘polygenic’ scores for happiness: these aim to group together the genes that determine someone’s predisposition to be happy. Studies to improve our understanding of the interaction between our genetic make-up and the environment in which we live are also underway.

The increased importance that people assign to happiness has also led to governments around the world turning their focus to this issue. Happiness is now recorded on a regular basis in almost all countries.

Empirical methods have been developed to help policy-makers to evaluate how much additional wellbeing any new policy will generate for a given economic cost needed to implement it. In addition, several governments are proposing the use of wellbeing as a criterion to choose between different policies. For example, the Green Book published by the UK Treasury now recognises social wellbeing as the goal of policy and approves of using measures of subjective wellbeing and their monetary equivalent in policy analysis.

Growing inequality, climate change, emerging infectious diseases and the challenges posed by automation are some of the main challenges we face. But all of these problems are also inextricably interconnected with the happiness of the people affected by them. To solve the complex economic and social challenges facing us, governments around the world should ensure happiness is a central factor within policy design.

Where can I find out more?

Who are economic experts on this question?

  • Maria Cotofan
  • Richard Layard
  • Jan-Emmanuel de Neve
  • Andrew Clark
  • John Helliwell
Author: Maria Cotofan
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