March 15, 2017

Swiss = Bliss?

Switzerland tops the 2015 World Happiness Report, taking the #1 spot from Denmark (the other runners-up being Iceland, Norway and Finland in Scandinavia and Canada in North America). But is the report based on a sound methodology and valid indicators? And are the Swiss really all that happy?

The third issue of the World Happiness Report, published by the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network and co-edited by economists John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and my Columbia colleague Jeffrey Sachs, came out last week.

The report's centerpiece is a ranking of countries by level of happiness, based on a Gallup poll. Respondents were not asked about their current happiness but about their lives as a whole: 

They were to imagine the best possible life for themselves (a 10) and then rank their actual life on a scale of 0-10 compared to that ideal life. 

Here is a video about the report:

Here are the top 20 countries in the report:
1. Switzerland (7.587)
2. Iceland (7.561)
3. Denmark (7.527)
4. Norway (7.522)
5. Canada (7.427)
6. Finland (7.406)
7. Netherlands (7.378)
8. Sweden (7.364)
9. New Zealand (7.286)
10. Australia (7.284)
11. Israel (7.278)
12. Costa Rica (7.266)
13. Austria (7.200)
14. Mexico (7.187)
15. United States (7.119)
16. Brazil (6.983)
17. Luxembourg (6.946)
18. Ireland (6.940)
19. Belgium (6.937)
20. United Arab Emirates (6.901)

People in rich countries are clearly much happier than those in poor countries, so happiness strongly correlates with 
per-capita GDP. Here are the bottom 20 countries:
139. Congo (Brazzaville) (3.989)
140. Comoros (3.956)
141. Uganda (3.931)
142. Senegal (3.904)
143. Gabon (3.896)
144. Niger (3.845)
145. Cambodia (3.819)
146. Tanzania (3.781)
147. Madagascar (3.681)
148. Central African Republic (3.678)
149. Chad (3.667)150. Guinea (3.656)
151. Ivory Coast (3.655)
152. Burkina Faso (3.587)
153. Afghanistan (3.575)
154. Rwanda (3.465)
155. Benin (3.340)
156. Syria (3.006)
157. Burundi (2.906)
158. Togo (2.839)

But at least five other variables influence national happiness: social support (do you have someone in your life you can count on?), life expectancy, freedom ("Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what to do with your life?"), charity ("Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?"), and government corruption. 

What about the indicators? Are they valid? Wouldn't another factor, my physical health, color the lens through which I see my life? And what do we do with the fact that people might attach different meanings to the same ratings (Swedes or Finns might be less effusive or more low-key about their happiness than, say, Italians)?

Our older daughter for example does not have many good things to say about life in Switzerland. Instead she takes every chance to travel abroad, dreaming of the day when she finally turns 18 and can move to New York City. (Of course this could have more to do with teenage hormones than with a rational assessment of happiness.)

Our younger daughter is sometimes so unhappy about little things (having to wear a hat to kindergarten, for example) that I had to remind her of the 1,000 African refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean last week. (I am beginning to sound a lot like my parents who kept telling us when we were kids to "eat up child, the kids in India are starving.")

And I myself can get bent out of shape by tiny mishaps like cutting myself while shaving. But  taking the long view of my life, touch wood, I count myself among the extremely lucky ones. So perhaps the report's findings are valid after all.

What do you say? What level of happiness about your life as a whole do you rate yourself at (from 1 to 10, with 10 being the happiest)? And what in your view are the valid indicators of happiness? I look forward to your comments, here or on my blog

Dr. Thomas D. Zweifel is a strategy & performance expert and coach for leaders of Global 1000 companies. His book The Rabbi and the CEO: The Ten Commandments for 21st Century Leaders was a National Jewish Book Award and Foreword of the Year Award finalist. 

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