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ANALYSIS: What does the UN Happiness Report really measure?

The annual release of the United Nations World Happiness Report leads to much jubilation – and flagellation – around the globe.

Since the ranking was first compiled in 2012, Scandinavian countries have dominated the top. African countries are found at the other end.

The 2018 round was no different, with the New York Times declaring “Want to Be Happy? Try Moving to Finland”, while website Face2Face Africa lamented that “Africa remains the least happy region in the world”.

Based on a single question

But what is the ranking based on, and how seriously should we take it?

The Happiness Report uses data collected by Gallup, a management-consulting company known for its public opinion polls. For the report, Gallup – which asks the “same questions, every time, in the same way” – asks the following question in an annual worldwide survey:

“Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.
“On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time, assuming that the higher the step the better you feel about your life, and the lower the step the worse you feel about it? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?”

Gallup explains that it randomly selects the respondents in each country, but takes care to ensure that the group is geographically and demographically representative of the entire population aged 15 and older. The typical sample size in each country is 1,000 people.

The report uses the national average response to this question over three years. In the top-ranked country, Finland, the average response (for 2015 to 2017) resulted in a score of 7.632, while in lowest-ranked Burundi it was 2.905.

War-torn countries more happy?

While the methodology appears relatively robust and simple, some of the results are surprising.

Though the ranking is based solely on the single question, the Happiness Report attempts to explain the contributing factors to each country’s happiness score. How happy one feels about life, the report’s authors suggest, can be explained by six factors:

  • GDP per capita,

  • healthy life expectancy,

  • available social support,

  • the degree of freedom to make decisions about one’s life,

  • generosity in a society, and

  • the absence of corruption.


In other words, in countries where the above six factors score highly, we would also expect higher degrees of reported happiness.

But the report points out three countries where this was not the case. “Tanzania, Rwanda and Botswana have anomalous scores, in the sense that their predicted values based on their performance on the six key variables, would suggest they would rank much higher than shown by the survey answers.”

Conflict-scarred Libya outranks SA, Nigeria

Indeed, Tanzania (153rd), Rwanda (151st) and Botswana (146th) all come in near the bottom as the least happy countries. Several countries that are in ongoing wars or military conflicts rank higher.

Libya has been in a constant state of conflict since the 2011 uprising which ousted Muammar al-Qaddafi, yet is comfortably in the top half of the ranking in 70th place. Somalia, which has been embroiled in a civil war since 1991, comes in 98th. By comparison, relatively stable South Africa is 105th, while Nigeria is 91st and Kenya is 124th.

The fight against the Islamic State in Iraq has displaced an estimated 5.4 million people since 2014. Yet at 117th in the happiness ranking, Iraqis still appear to be happier than Namibians (119th) – whose former president Hifikepunye Pohamba received the Mo Ibrahim Prize for “excellence in African leadership” in 2014.

What is happiness? Why rank it?

The anomalous results raise questions about the ranking, which deserves further scrutiny, Prof Charles J Wheelan, senior lecturer at Dartmouth College and author of the book Naked Statistics, among others, told Africa Check.

“The most significant limitation is that happiness is obviously difficult to quantify and measure. It can mean different things to different people, and across cultures, so one should not oversell the findings.”

Despite this, Wheelan noted that the findings were valuable in the sense that they allowed for in-country comparisons over time, for example, and contributed to our overall understanding of happiness and well-being.

“The more we know and think about it, however imperfect the methodology, the better,” he said.


Markus Korhonen is a political analyst specialising in Global Political Economy. He is currently teaching at the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University.


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