Questioning the Validity of the World Happiness Report

What is the World Happiness Report? How accurately do the WHR rankings reflect national standards of living?

The World Happiness Report aims to rank national happiness based on respondents’ answers about their quality of life. According to Vaclav Smil, the author of Numbers Don’t Life, we shouldn’t take the survey’s results at face value.

Here’s why the World Happiness Report isn’t fully accurate.

The Problem With the World Happiness Report

According to Vaclav Smil, we should always take reports of a country’s happiness with a grain of salt, as happiness is difficult to measure. He argues against the validity of the World Happiness Report, which the media regularly cites as an accurate measure of the quality of life in different countries. 

This report calculates happiness using several variables: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption. GDP, as we’ll discuss further, is not a good indicator of quality of life. Other variables, like freedom of choice and perception of corruption, depend too heavily on subjective answers that are difficult to compare across cultures. 

The Use of the World Happiness Report

Since its inception in 2012, the World Happiness Report (WHR) has gained traction among the scientific community, something Smil might disapprove of. The WHR is made every year by experts in economics, psychology, and statistics. Researchers note that the report was created to measure worldwide happiness and to help make important policy decisions. Because happy people live longer, are more productive, and earn more money, the argument goes, when politicians focus on happiness, society as a whole benefits. 

We should be careful, however, to not put too much weight on self-reported statistics on happiness, as these statistics can sometimes be misleading. For example, most happiness statistics are based on national averages and don’t account for happiness inequality. A country may have relatively high happiness levels, but there could be a big gap between its most happy and least happy citizens. 

Questioning the Validity of the World Happiness Report

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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