Who are the happiest people in the world? According to the World Happiness Report, it’s the residents of Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Israel and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Palestinians, who have lived for decades under Israeli military occupation, rank 99th.
Every year, a United Nations-backed organisation publishes a report that ranks countries based on “happiness”. The rankings themselves are based on Gallup surveys of a few thousand participants in each country who are asked to personally rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10. This “life evaluation”, in other words, is someone’s stated personal opinion of how content they are with their life at that particular point in time. That information is then coupled with some other factors and presented in the annual World Happiness Report.
But critics have pointed out glaring contradictions, blind spots and biases, including a seeming inclination towards rich Western nations – the Global North – that ignores centuries of colonial exploitation that enabled them to gather that wealth.
Depressed but happy?
Most of 2023’s “happiest countries” are in Europe. Finland, for example, holds the top spot as the world’s happiest country – as it has for the past six years.
But the country also has some of the highest rates of anti-depressant use in Europe. The same is true for Sweden, which ranks sixth, and Iceland, which ranks second – and actually has the highest reported antidepressant use in all of Europe.
Meanwhile, India ranks 126th – extremely low – on the World Happiness Report, but places much, much higher in a separate poll, which also factors in variables like work-life balance. Another competing report, known as the Global Happiness Report, ranked China as the world’s happiest country.
Rich but unequal?
While the happiness rankings are based on responses to a single question, the actual World Happiness Report itself is an in-depth analysis that explains the rankings with the help of other data points. One of these data points is gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.
Researchers have noticed a correlation: Countries with high GDP per capita are often the ones that rank highest on the happiness rankings. The top 20 countries on the list, after all, are largely from Western countries with high economic indicators, leading many to conclude that GDP per capita is the most important factor in determining a country’s overall happiness.
But GDP per capita doesn’t take into account income inequality. It’s simply the total value of goods and services generated per year in a country, divided by the total population. It tells us nothing about who gets a country’s wealth and who doesn’t, nor how much of it is concentrated in the hands of the few.
The United States, which ranks 15th on the happiness index, has significantly more income inequality than just about any other developed nation according to one of the world’s most widely-cited measures of income inequality. It’s a country where some 38 million Americans live in poverty – officially – and nearly 60 percent of the population lives paycheck to paycheck.
Gallup’s website says they poll “the entire civilian, non-institutionalized adult population of the country” for the data that feeds the happiness report.
But that excludes populations who live in institutions like prisons, nursing homes and senior centres, to name a few. What’s more, the researchers don’t survey civilians in areas they believe are unsafe (ie, “where the safety of the interviewing staff is threatened”). It’s unclear how many population centers that may exclude – especially in deeply unequal societies, or in countries with significant incarcerated populations, like the US and Brazil, where a disproportionate share of those in prisons are Black.
Then there’s the issue of cultural bias, a common critique of the happiness report. The basic idea is stated quite clearly in a 2023 study: “How can one conclude that wellbeing is higher in country A than country B when wellbeing is being measured according to the way people in country A think about well-being?” The problem with the happiness report, these researchers say, is that asking people to rate how happy or satisfied they are is akin to viewing the issue through a Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic – or “WEIRD” – lens, which they describe as much more individualistic and achievement-oriented.
To put it simply, asking someone, “How satisfied are you with your life?” may, in fact, be asking them to think about happiness as it relates to their individualistic life achievements rather than other factors such as their interpersonal relations and social harmony. One poll shows that “interdependent happiness”, rooted in one’s interpersonal relations with family and peers, is a stronger factor in determining “happiness” – a common response in polling data from Japan, Nigeria, and Poland. How different might the world happiness ranking look if the main question was, “Do you feel loved and cared for?” or “Do you feel like you belong?”
The happiness report also lacks perspective on how the happiness of one group may in fact be inextricably linked to the unhappiness of another. The United Kingdom is ranked the world’s 17th happiest country, but the country’s prosperity was built in part on the centuries-long colonial exploitation of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean sugar trade and the plundering of India.
Belgium is the 19th happiest, but it extracted enormous wealth – and inflicted incredible suffering – through its colonisation of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Meanwhile, India, the Caribbean nations and African countries are largely ranked quite low on the happiness report.
Or take the fact that this year, Israel ranks 4th, while Palestinians rank 95 spots lower. Palestinians have been forcibly removed from their homeland by settler-colonialists both before and after 1948, a day Palestinians remember as the “Nakba”, or the catastrophe. They have since lived under military occupation and a regime that practices what multiple international human rights groups describe as a system of apartheid run by the Israeli government.
So what do the World Happiness Report’s rankings actually tell us? Is it a hierarchy of people who openly proclaim they are satisfied with their lives, based on a Western conception of “satisfaction”? Is it a ranking of countries with high GDP per capita? Or is it a ranking of wealthy countries that got rich by exploiting others?