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How Do You Measure Happiness?

How do you measure happiness?How do you measure happiness? This is a tough question because it is so subjective. Our happiness level depends on many internal and external factors. Stress, age, health, money, generosity, government, and our internal baseline all contribute to how we feel. Personally, I’m a pretty happy go lucky guy. If all goes well in 2019, my happiness level should be 7 by the end of the year. (This is on a scale of 1 to 8 to be consistent with the World Happiness Report.)  But life is unpredictable. We’re trying to sell our condo and it is slow going. That’s one source of stress. My mom is dealing with dementia and that’s another big issue. Life doesn’t always work out like we plan.

That’s just on the personal level, though. What about on a national level. This is actually more important than you think. If you’re a happy and optimistic person, does it really matter where you live? It does, according to the World Happiness Report. Apparently, the national level of happiness is quite important. It’s like a baseline. If you move to a happier country, you’ll become happier. The inverse is true as well. So don’t move to South Sudan, Central African Republic, or Afghanistan. It’s not a good idea.

World Happiness Report

Anyway, have you seen the 2019 World Happiness Report? This is the UN’s effort to rank the national happiness level. The result is interesting, but the report is quite dry. I tried reading the whole World Happiness Report and I still couldn’t quite figure out their formula (chapter 2.) From what I understand, 6 factors make up the bulk of the score for each country.

  1. GDP per capital – money! The more you make, the happier you are. To a point.
  2. Social support – If you were in trouble, do you have someone you can count on to help you?
  3. Healthy life expectancy – Of course, health is very important. Money doesn’t mean much if you aren’t healthy.
  4. Freedom to make life choices – Are you satisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life.
  5. Generosity – Have you donated in the past month?
  6. Perceptions of corruption – Is corruption widespread throughout the government and businesses?
  7. Dystopia* + residual – Other factors such as confidence in government, democratic quality, delivery quality, economic inequality, and trust. Each of these factors makes a small contribution to the happiness level, but they all add up.

*Dystopia is the imaginary unhappiest country in the world. So every country is better than Dystopia. It’s just something they used as a benchmark.

The weighting is really the difficult part to understand. They provide a coefficient table, but it doesn’t answer anything. For example, the generosity factor is very small. The formula doesn’t really make sense to me. Anyway, let’s just focus on the result for now. You can download the spreadsheet here if you want to check it out. The data is on the sidebar, near the bottom. Actually, the spreadsheet is quite interesting.

World Happiest Countries

Here are the top 20 countries.

world happiness report

Thailand WHR

Well, what do you know? The Scandinavian countries are still on top. The colder you are, the happier you are? That’s not quite it. Russia is way down at #68.

Let’s look at a few other countries I’m interested in. I made a chart so we can see how their ranking changed over the years.

World Happiness Countries history

United States #19 in 2019

The U.S. looks okay. We’re still in the top 20. Unfortunately, we’re slowly sliding down in the ranking. The World Happiness Report has a whole chapter on Americans. Chapter 5 – The sad state of happiness in the United States and the role of digital media. Americans are doing better financially, but we have a lot of stress in our lives. Apparently, social media is making us very unhappy, especially the kids. We are spending too much time online and we’re not getting enough sleep and in-person social interaction. Thanks for ruining our lives Mark Zuckerburg. Americans also worry about healthcare and we still struggle with obesity.

Digging a bit deeper, our healthy life expectancy subscore is quite low. If we can improve this to Canada’s level, our happiness score would improve significantly. We’ll probably get into the top 10. Now that’s a reason to vote for Medicaid for all. Our corruption score is quite low too. Apparently, we don’t trust our leaders and representatives. No surprise there. I’m still glad to live in the United States. #19 is still quite good in the grand scheme of things.

Canada #9

Canada just squeezed into the top 10. Nice job! The scores for the U.S. and Canada are quite similar. Canada has better scores on healthy life expectancy and freedom to make life choices. I’m happy for Canada. If the SHTF, we can always drive north, right?

Finland #1

Those Scandinavian countries, I don’t believe it. How happy can you be with so little sun? I read somewhere that they feel pressured to say they’re happy. That’s the culture. If someone says they’re unhappy, it’s like they’re asking you to do something about it. Hmmm….

Costa Rica #12

Great going, Costa Rica! I can see this. We visited Costa Rica a few years ago and everyone is really laid back. Although, the data looks a little funny here. Their residual score is so high. If you look at just the 6 main components, the score is almost the same as Thailand. I guess the little things add up.

Thailand #52

Wow, this is surprising. Thailand didn’t do so well in the happiness ranking. Their residual score and GDP aren’t good. The government isn’t stable there so maybe that’s a big issue. It’s disappointing because Thai people are generally relaxed and happy.  Hopefully, Thailand won’t drop much further. I plan to live there part-time in the future.

Taiwan #25

Taiwan did quite well and came in at #25. They improved quite a bit since 2013. Taiwan is actually the highest ranking country in Asia. Thailand is the third so maybe #52 isn’t so bad after all. I guess it makes sense. GDP is a big part of this equation and most Asian countries aren’t that wealthy.

China #93

Yikes, that’s low. I guess life is still tough in China. China has the 2nd largest economy in the world, but there are still a lot of poor people there. The inequality is really bad there. There are super-rich tycoons, but most people are really poor. That’s a recipe for unhappiness unless you’re one of the tycoons.

There are 156 countries in the ranking. So if your country is on the first page, that’s already pretty good. I really hope Thailand doesn’t fall any further. They’re at the bottom of this first page.

Personal happiness score

Okay, enough about countries. Let’s see if we can use the same formula to calculate our personal happiness score. I’ll use myself as an example. The scores are from 1 to 8.

  • GDP: On an individual level, this is equivalent to income. Our active and passive income is good this year. I’ll give myself a 7 here.
  • Social support: If I really need help, I can count on my brothers. My score is 7 here.
  • Healthy life expectancy: On an individual level, we probably should just look at current health. I’m generally healthy so I get a 7 for now.
  • Freedom of choice: Life is great 7 years after early retirement. I have a lot more freedom than most people my age. Of course, there are things that tie me down too. Our son is still young so I still need to do a lot of stuff for him. All in all, I’m really good here and I give myself the full score – 8.
  • Generosity: This is my downfall. I’m usually not very generous. However, I donated $100 to help a kid with cancer this month. It really feels good to help someone. I get a 3 here.
  • Perception of corruption: Jeez, this one is tricky. I don’t trust our leaders and representatives at all. They’re all crooks and cheats. However, I know it’s a lot worse in many other countries. In Thailand, they’ll put you in jail if you say anything bad about the royal family. Anyway, I don’t want to complain too much. I’ll give this one a 5.

Okay, let’s put all these numbers in the fuzzy World Happiness machine and ….. My overall score is 6.85*. Not too shabby! That’s exactly what I expected at the beginning of this post. Well, I’m a bit stressed out about selling our condos right now. Once they’re gone, my personal happiness score should be a solid 7 (out of 8.)

*I made up the 6.85.

How do you measure happiness? Is the UN missing something? Having a good family life is a big part of happiness, but it’s not a part of their equation.

Image by Lidya Nada

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