Not all cultures value happiness over other aspects of well-being

Rankings of the happiest countries don’t account for how their people think about happiness

An illustration of many happy people

A consortium of international agencies has been issuing happiness rankings by country almost every year since 2012. Finland has topped the list for the seventh year running with other Nordic countries all falling in the top 10. Many researchers, though, question the cultural validity of such rankings.

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For the seventh year running, the Finns have taken the top spot as the world’s happiest people. That’s according to the 2024 World Happiness Report, released March 20. Per usual, the remaining Nordic countries — Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway — are all in the top 10.

Almost every year since the United Nations General Assembly declared March 20 an International Day of Happiness in 2012, a consortium of international agencies has been issuing these happiness rankings, along with detailed reports on well-being. The rankings provide countries with a way to measure national success — and develop policies that enhance well-being — beyond economic measures like gross domestic product, which encourages more growth than the planet can handle.

But while there may be benefits to moving past standard economic factors as markers of a country’s success, the definition of happiness isn’t necessarily standard around the globe.  

Culture can influence how people in different countries respond to surveys of happiness, says macropsychologist Kuba Krys of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, who is not involved with the report. “We should be careful of … making big claims based on such comparisons.”

Moreover, the concept of happiness, as it’s currently defined and understood, may suffer from a Western bias, one common in societies that social scientists refer to as WEIRD — Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic, Krys says.

The rankings in the happiness report rely on responses to a single question in the Gallup World Poll: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

Finnish respondents, on average, stand just below the eighth rung. U.S. respondents stand roughly one rung lower, a score that lands them in 23rd place. People in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have not made it to the second rung. 

But Krys and others question whether such scores can be meaningfully compared across countries. For instance, when researchers asked 200 people in Tanzania, a low-ranking country, how they selected their rung, they found that just over a third, most of them with limited formal education, did not understand the question. One woman vacillated between scores of 0 and 10 while another raised her score from a 6 to 8 believing it would help her financially, cultural psychologist Michael Kaufman and colleagues reported in 2022 in the International Journal of Wellbeing.

“Do people largely with a 7th grade education understand a Western notion of ranking your life’s experience on a linear scale?” asks Kaufman, an international development consultant in Chicago. “The answer is: ‘No, they don’t.’”

Moreover, personality and cultural psychologist Mohsen Joshanloo notes that many people, especially outside the West, fear that admitting to a high level of happiness may cause something bad to happen. That fear can depress their scores on a standardized survey, his research shows.  

“Fear of happiness is very real and affects how people around the world experience and express their happiness and answer questions about their happiness,” says Joshanloo, of Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Similarly, Krys’ research shows that not everybody wants maximum happiness. His team looked at survey responses from almost 13,000 people in 49 countries. Instead of responding from their own perspective, respondents were asked to evaluate how much an “ideal or perfect person” would agree with various statements reflecting happiness.

Sample statements included: “In most ways, my life is close to my ideal,” and “The conditions of my life are excellent.” Responses ranged from 1 for “doesn’t describe him/her at all” to 9 for “describes him/her exactly.”  

Ideal happiness varied widely by country, Krys and colleagues found. In Germany and Iceland, roughly 85 percent of participants responded that ideal happiness equated with scores of 7 and higher. But in Bhutan, Ghana, Nigeria, Japan and Pakistan, 70 percent or more of the respondents selected a lower ideal, the team reported in February in Perspectives on Psychological Science.  

“We Westerners, we are driven by the maximization principle,” Krys says. “We want more of everything. It’s not universal.”

Theoretically, researchers could adjust rankings to reflect a culture’s ideal level of happiness. Perhaps Japan’s score of 6 on the ladder of happiness is really a point higher, or the United States’ score of 6.7 is really a point lower. But such a singular focus on happiness is itself problematic, Krys says.  

Non-Westerners often place greater emphasis on other aspects of a good life, such as harmony, spirituality or meaning, research shows. And sometimes scores in one category conflict with scores in another. For example, poor countries that score low in happiness often score high in meaning in life, researchers reported in 2014 in the Journal of Research in Personality. The reverse held true for wealthier nations.

Researchers who work on the World Happiness Report are actively researching other measures of well-being that are potentially more widely applicable, says Lara Aknin, a social psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, and a report co-editor.

In 2022, the report researchers explored the concepts of balance and harmony by zooming in on questions related to those concepts in the 2020 Gallup World Poll. People worldwide value those concepts, the team found. And with few exceptions, people everywhere tended to prefer a calm life over an exciting one.

“The findings … suggest that many people worldwide, not just those beyond North America, experience and prefer balance and harmony,” Aknin says.   

Krys and others say that the solution is not to get rid of happiness rankings. Instead, they would like the report’s authors to issue a larger variety of well-being rankings. “Happiness is the Holy Grail in the World Happiness Report,” Krys says. “But happiness is not the universal, sole … aim of people’s lives.”

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