Why happiness reports deserve more scrutiny

When it comes to surveys about well-being, it is best to read the fine print

Happiness reports aim to teach us about how we are feeling. But a reliance on self-reporting makes such polls problematic. Photo: Simon Maage / Unsplash
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There’s no shortage of polling, research and reports addressing the topic of happiness.

Which countries are the happiest? What makes people the happiest? Can happiness be taught?

Yet despite our best efforts at cracking the code to happiness, there are some fundamental flaws in how we go about doing it.

In 2013, I gave a talk on decision-neuroscience in Denmark. A significant portion of my presentation focused on discussing the limitations of declarative measures such as questionnaires, polls and surveys. The very flaws that peer-reviewed scientific studies had been documenting for decades.

On one of my slides, I presented a series of questions about experiencing emotions such as enjoyment, sadness and anger. I aimed to gauge whether my audience found these questions relevant for assessing how a person is feeling.

I asked people to choose between several options, including "good" or "lousy", to categorise these questions. By a show of hands, more than 90 per cent of the audience judged them as "lousy".

I then disclosed to my Danish audience that these questions were all, word-for-word, taken from the 2013 World Happiness Report (WHR) methodology: the very report that ranked their country as the happiest in the world that year.

I realised there was irony in me being critical of self-reports, and then intentionally using this weak methodology to make my point. Yet no one in the audience seemed to mind my flawed approach, or the non-representativeness of my sample for that matter.

This should not come as a surprise.

We rarely take the time to check the methodology behind the surveys we read, the figures that catch our attention, or the statements made by overconfident pundits. To be fair, such methodological details are not always available.

However, this is not the case with the UN’s WHR. The methodology, statistics and results are exhaustively detailed in the report’s appendices. The 2024 edition, published last month, is no exception, with 158 pages in the main report, plus three appendices that add another 172 pages.

After reading the report, I spent time digging into the appendices. As expected, self-reports on surveyed people’s perception of happiness, social support, freedom of making life choices, generosity and corruption level in the government of their country constitute the bulk of the insights.

We rarely take the time to check the methodology behind the surveys we read, the figures that catch our attention, or the statements made by overconfident pundits

The following uncontextualised questions were part of the survey: “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” and “Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?”

I’m really scratching my head here. Why yesterday? What kind of learning, good or bad? You don’t need a PhD in psychology to realise how vague and context-dependent these questions are. One of the problems with questions is that people always end up giving an answer, even if they have zero clue about the topic.

Take happiness, for instance. There might have never been so many people declaring themselves to be unhappy as there have been since the day we started asking them how happy they are. Perhaps before being asked, some people were not thinking about happiness because they simply didn't take the time to.

It might be a good thing, in the end, for people to reflect on their own level of happiness, but this example illustrates the power of induction that questions can have on people’s answers, behaviours, on people writing reports and readers trusting the results.

To a certain extent, authors of the WHR seem mindful of these issues. Like in previous years, they also included gross domestic product per capita, as well as healthy life expectancy statistics, based on data from the World Health Organisation’s Global Health Observatory repository. To their credit, they mention the repository was last updated in December 2020, which is a bit problematic given the 2024 WHR covers the 2021-2023 period. It is indicated that “interpolation and extrapolation are used” to circumvent this issue, yet no other detail is provided.

Don’t get me wrong, however critical I may sound about the methodology, I find the WHR an interesting attempt to crack an issue that certainly matters. The collaborative effort of 13 organisations to bring this report to life each year since 2012 is commendable.

In this year’s report, there is a focus on the differences in perceived happiness that can be observed between different age groups, which I find insightful.

And since it can be easy to criticise the hard work of others, let me try to be constructive and suggest categories of data that could ground the report in the reality of our lives, rather than mostly on what people say.

The first index I would like to suggest is the use of antidepressants in each country. However simplistic, it could be a good indicator of unhappiness. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data going back to 2021, Iceland is the country where the largest amounts of antidepressants are prescribed for every 1,000 people. Sweden is ranked sixth, Finland is 11th and Denmark is 12th.

You might wonder why I chose to point out these four countries. Well, they happen to top WHR’s 2024 rankings of the happiest countries in the following order: Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden.

But wait a minute, if people were so happy, why would antidepressant prescriptions in these countries be among the highest in the world? A rather cynical and, once again, simplistic interpretation could be that people report being happy because they are more medicated than in other places.

With happiness depending on several factors, the single index that I suggest cannot explain everything – nor can a bunch of uncontextualised questions, for that matter – but I’d be curious to see antidepressant use included in future editions of the report.

Other data that could be useful in the WHR are the rate of self-inflicted harm and various crime rates.

The good news is that, slowly but surely, the world is taking a more critical look at happiness methodologies.

In 2016, the UAE became the first country to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness and Well-being, Ohood Al Roumi. The UAE also launched a programme and a research centre on the topic. I happen to have led field research commissioned by the minister to better measure and improve well-being and durable performance in the workplace thanks to behavioural and neurophysiological measures.

But enough of me. It's your turn now. What do you think would be good additional measures that would improve our understanding of happiness?

Happiness is too important. It deserves rigorous measures.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the co-founder of Inclusive Brains, the Chairman of the Institute for Artificial Intelligence by Biotech Dental and the Host of TheCentaurs.AI podcast

You can follow and contact him on X, @oullier

Published: April 10, 2024, 7:35 AM
Updated: April 14, 2024, 2:32 PM