Happiness and policy

Last week, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network released the third World Happiness Report.

WHR uses life evaluation, an individual’s general satisfaction with their current life in comparison with their estimation of the best possible condition of their life. This scale is called “Cantril’s ladder” and is a widely used measure for measuring life satisfaction. By contrast, many measures of happiness address short-term satisfaction, the momentary experience of pleasure.

Life evaluation is a useful measure because it focuses on the long-term. Also, the evidence so far shows that life evaluation has a strong correlation with objective measures for well-being. 

The 2015 WHR, like the 2013 WHR, points out that six variables explain three fourths of the happiness differences between countries: (a) real GDP per capita, (b) healthy life expectancy, (c) having someone to count on, (d) perceived freedom to make life choices, (e) freedom from corruption, and (f) own generosity.

Reflecting a growing conviction that governments need to focus on the happiness of its citizens, this year’s world happiness report devotes an entire chapter to the question of creating policies that support happiness. 

Are we happier?

But first, a question: are we happier?

Who is happier?

In the last report, published in 2013, Denmark with a happiness score of 7.693 topped the rankings. The Philippines, with a happiness score of 4.985, ranked 92nd out of 156 countries, trailing after Singapore (30th with 6.546), Thailand (36th with 6.371), Japan (43rd with 6.064), Malaysia (56th with 5.760) Vietnam (63rd with 5.533), and Indonesia (76th with 5.348).

In the 2015 report, Switzerland (1st at 7.587) and Iceland (2nd at 7.561) overtook Denmark (3rd at 7.527). The Philippines ranked 90 of 106 countries studied, with a happiness score of 5.073. This is an improvement over the last report but we still trail our Asian neighbors, Singapore (24th with 6.798), Thailand (34th with 6.455), Taiwan (38th with 6.298), Japan (46th with 5.987), Malaysia (61st with 5.770), Hong Kong (72nd with 5.474), Indonesia (74th with 5.360), and Vietnam (75th with 5.360).

Both 2013 and 2015 reports conclude that economic crises and natural disasters have a significant impact on national happiness. Crises are damaging if the crisis triggers “lame and strife rather than cooperation and repair.” Interestingly, the WHR reports that crises can actually be beneficial if local institutional and social support mechanisms are strong. WHR reports that individuals place a high value on belonging to a “caring and effective community.”

Females report being happier than men in five of the eight global regions studied, with the exceptions being sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and the Commonwealth of Independent states (CEE/CIS).

Globally, young adults report the highest levels of life satisfaction with satisfaction decreasing significantly with age before essentially leveling at the mid-30’s for men and the early 50’s for women. Male satisfaction shows a slight upward hump in the mid-50s and females in the mid-60’s. The Philippines reflects the Southeast Asian experience with females reporting slightly higher life satisfaction than males. Levels of rest, feelings of safety, and experience with negative events affect the gender differences in happiness. Worry increases with age for women but declines in the old ages for men. Virtually everywhere, women experience depression more than men.

So what?

There is good reason to craft policy with happiness as a goal. The 2013 WHR points out that happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more and, are better citizens.

Addressing the six key factors affecting well-being is a good start. Fortunately, GDP per capita, the centerpiece of most national development efforts is one of the most important correlates of happiness. The 2013 report identified three other key policy areas: health, transport and education.

The 2015 report goes further to the matter of setting priorities. The centerpiece of prioritization, of course, is some form of cost-benefit analysis. The challenge is in quantifying the variables. The report points out many challenges, not least of which is the wide variance between how individual variations in valuing the factors contributing to happiness. One of the more important challenges is similar to that for the economic goal: the national averages often mask the situation of those that are vulnerable. Hence, the report recommends adding the goal of reducing misery: focusing on those at the bottom of the population.

The report goes on to caution policy makers to use good evidence to guide policy.

So it’s been two years. The answer is the same. Are we truly happier? The answer is still: not really.

The guidance to government, at least ours, is still quite clear. Pay attention to the basics.

Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at

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