Why World Happiness Data Should Make Us Smile

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Can happiness be measured? If so, what do the measurements tell us about the state and trajectory of happiness in the world?

Steven Pinker believes that the world is getting better, and happiness is part of that. By sharing world happiness data, he shows that happiness levels are up and that the statistics on mental illness and loneliness look better than we might imagine.

Read more to learn why Pinker is optimistic when it comes to world happiness.

World Happiness Data

Pinker says that, despite beliefs to the contrary, we are happier. He acknowledges that happiness can be difficult to measure. It can be measured only by self-reporting, which can be unreliable. However, he argues that there are intrinsic goods in life—life itself, health, education, leisure, and freedom—and we can measure those. People who have more of those things should be happier than those who have less, Pinker says. And, if they have those things and they’re still unhappy, he says it’s an issue of ingratitude.

Here’s what Pinker shares in regard to world happiness data.

1. Levels of happiness: In order to examine what actually makes people happy, Pinker looks at levels of happiness across different countries and then compares those to other features of those countries. He says the research shows that happier countries also have better health, greater freedom, higher wealth, and better social welfare systems.

Although these correlations exist, Pinker acknowledges that there are outliers. Specifically, the data shows that in general, wealthier countries tend to have happier citizens. However, based on relative wealth, Pinker says the U.S. is not as happy as it “should” be, and Latin American countries are happier than they “should” be. So clearly wealth isn’t a consistent predictor of happiness if considered in isolation. 

(Shortform note: Two factors influencing how much money affects our happiness are how we prioritize it in our lives and how we spend it. Researchers have found that people who prioritize money over time tend to be less happy than those who value time more. And those who spend their money on experiences and on other people are happier than those who spend their money on material items for themselves. Differing cultural values related to those factors could explain why wealth and happiness don’t correlate so neatly across countries.)  

2. Mental illness: Pinker acknowledges we’ve seen a rise in mental illness in recent years. However, he attributes this rise largely to a rise in diagnoses. He says over-diagnosis and expanding definitions of what constitutes a “mental illness” mean more people are now considered to be mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean more people actually are mentally ill. In fact, he argues that the fact that we’ve gotten better at acknowledging and diagnosing mental illness is a positive sign that we’re becoming more compassionate and is actually a sign of moral progress.

(Shortform note: Scholars disagree on whether mental illness rates are increasing or if it’s an over-diagnosis problem. However, some research suggests that a mental illness diagnosis can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, believing you’re mentally ill can have negative effects on your mental health. If this is true, then the long-term results would be the same: an increase in mental illness.)  

3. Loneliness: Pinker says there’s a widespread belief that people are lonelier now than they were in the past because we have fewer in-person relationships and less community involvement. But (although he only looks at data for Americans on this measure) he says the data shows that people aren’t actually lonelier now—they just have different types of relationships than they did in the past. They interact more on social media than in person, but they have wider social networks because of this. 

Does Social Media Impact Our Well-Being?

Research examining the link between social media use and well-being is contradictory, so the correlation is still unclear. A 2019 study looked for links specifically between social media use and overall well-being, academic achievement, and narcissism. The researchers found little to no correlation between the first two factors, but they did find higher rates of narcissism associated with social media use.

On the other hand, a 2020 study did find a correlation between social media use and poorer mental health. Researchers in this study report that “social envy” associated with social media use can increase levels of depression and anxiety.

Harvard Health says asking whether social media causes loneliness is like asking whether eating causes obesity—in other words, only if you overindulge. Several research studies have found that heavier users of social media are more prone to loneliness.

Researchers also caution that as social media use is a relatively new phenomenon, there’s still insufficient research to make solid conclusions yet about its long-term effects.
Why World Happiness Data Should Make Us Smile

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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