Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hapless happiness map, index?

Recently Randall Parker reported on the work of Leicester PhD candidate Adrian White's who produced the 'World Map of Happiness', purporting to rank 178 countries worldwide by the respective happiness of their populations.

A couple of things make me skeptical. First off, it's impossible to tell how exactly the rankings were determined. The University's press release reads:
Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist at the University’s School of Psychology, analysed data published by UNESCO, the CIA, the New Economics Foundation, the WHO, the Veenhoven Database, the Latinbarometer, the Afrobarometer, and the UNHDR, to create a global projection of subjective
well-being: the first world map of happiness.

The projection, which is to be published in a psychology journal this September, will be presented at a conference later in the year. Participants in the various studies were asked questions related to happiness and satisfaction with life. The meta-analysis is based on the findings of over 100 different studies around the world, which questioned 80,000 people worldwide. For this study data has also been analysed in relation to health, wealth and access to education.
Apparently data was pulled from a motley mix of sources, a bunch of studies that putatively ask about happiness (any standardization?), and then the curious line about vaguely 'analysed data'. I emailed the author several days ago asking to be pointed in a direction that would expound on the methodology, but received no response.

A quick perusal (an oxymoron, incidentally!) of White's rankings seemed to show happiness being bolstered by economic stagnation (running a regression yields a moderate, but statistically significant, inverse correlation of .20 between economic growth and White's index) . Counterintuitive, especially to Americans, where politicians often live and die by economic numbers. Further, a link in Parapundit's comments section pointed to a blatantly green 'Happy planet index' that White used in his calculations.

And the two studies are definetly related. They both use the exact same 178 countries (Saint Lucia, population 168,000, and Seychelles, population 81,000, twice included; Micronesia, population 108,000, and Macau, population 453,000, twice not present). The two indices correlate with one another at a statistically significant .62. That's stronger than the relationship between national IQ (as estimated in IQ and the Wealth of Nations) and national wealth as measured by purchasing power parity (2005). It suggests that almost 40% of White's scoring comes directly from the 'Happy Planet' fellows.

Who would have thought Bhutan (ranked 8th happiest country on earth), with the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the world, suffering less than a 50% literacy rate, and poorer than much of Africa, would be more joyful than Canada, Norway, or the US?

Moreover, White's homepage accesses a survey entitled "National Environment and Personality Survey" that asks questions about personal water conservation, etc. Not that resource profligacy is good, nor to impugn the author's integrity, but with the happiness rankings being so muddled, the author so apparently green, and countries without economic growth or resource usage being so championed, it's tough not to be skeptical.

I agree with Randall's assertion that smaller, homogenuous societies tend to function better and have happier denizens than do gargantuan, balkanized ones, but am weary of anti-capitalist green zeal masquerading as social science.



al fin said...

Yes, it is easy to shape a survey to give you any results you want. What is more likely in this case, the people who created the "happiness index" had no idea what they were doing and created an erratic instrument that gave unpredictable and unreliable results.

Being highly skeptical in this political age is the smartest approach.

Anonymous said...

The real question is...

Will this fluff be enough to get him a PhD?

constantine said...

With the international coverage it's got, you better believe it will.

Fat Knowledge said...

I agree with you that we need to be very skeptical with regards to happiness surveys. I too would like to understand more about how he gathered his information and what the possible issues with his methodology are. The idea of trying to measure happiness by country seems like a good one to me, so hopefully there will be other studies in the future to compare this one with.

I don't think this had anything to do with the Happy Planet Index which I agree is pretty much worthless. The fact that the two have a correlation of .62 is interesting, but I don't think it invalidates White's work.

I am not sure what the state of the art of happiness studies is, but I read this in theProgress Paradox:

Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize winner for Economics, went better part of 2 decades trying to devise a reliable, impartial scale of "subjective wellbeing" and gave up. He found that if he asked college students whether they considered themselves happy, most said yes. But if he first asked college students how long it had been since they went on a date, and then asked whether they considered themselves happy, most said no. At one time he asked subjects if they presented a smiling face to the world but were privately unhappy. He stopped asking this question because it caused many people to burst into tears.

This appears to be about life satisfaction, which maybe is more reliable. If it predicts health and welfare outcomes, then maybe there is something to it.

The Progress Paradox also says that happiness at the country level and GDP/capita correlate well up to $10,000 a year but then not that much after that. It doesn't surprise me then that GDP growth in rich countries and happiness don't correlate.

As for Bhutan, the country has a goal of Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. That might explain why they are ranked so high despite all their issues. I like the concept of GNH, as what is the point of increased GDP if it doesn't lead to more happiness? That being said, The Economist took a look at Bhutan's implementation of GNH (free link) and point out some issues.

crush41 said...

More on the methodology is definitely necessary. Thanks for that interesting piece on Bhutan.

White's happiest countries are basically those that are small, homogenous, economically stagnant, and not heavily populated.

Even without knowing the methodology, their is subjectivity for sure. The Sinitic and Japanese cultures are both fascinated by melancholy and uncertainty abou the future, while the West tends to be eternally optimistic (or purports to be, anyway).

Physical health and relative wealth both strike me as likely indicators of happiness with a good deal of objectivity. As Kahneman said, asking open-ended questions to people about perceived contentment is fraught with difficulty.

Fat Knowledge said...

This is an old post, but I happen to have looked into this again and so I have new information.

The data on happiness comes from the Happy Planet Index (download here). But, it just uses the life satisfaction numbers and not the ecological footprint or life expectancy numbers that make the Happy Planet Index so meaningless.

On page 48 they explain where they get the numbers. 64 countries (and almost all of the large ones) get their data from the World Database of Happiness (google it) which uses World Values Survey data. The other is a hodgepodge of sources, which seem a little less reliable, but probably better than nothing at all.

The one exception being Bhutan where they write: Derived from a survey of most households in Bhutan conducted by the Centre for Bhutanese Studies (2005). Life satisfaction was reported using only a 3 point scale, suggesting that caution should be exercised about the accuracy of this data.

So, it is quite likely that Bhutan wouldn't show up so highly if it used the standard collection techniques.

I also found it interesting that you found happiness correlated with economic stagnation, when Wil Wilkinson thought that it showed that happiness correlated with wealth.

Audacious Epigone said...


Great stuff. These sorts of lists make me salivate. I recall, if memory serves, when looking at the economics, that there was a correlation with PPP as well, but the inverse correlation with GDP growth was stronger. That's not surprising. Europe is wealthy, it's just not growing very fast.