The Unbearable Sadness Of ‘Being Happy’: Biases In The World Happiness Report – Analysis


By Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh and Soumya Bhowmick

The World Happiness Report is a reminder of Oscar Wilde’s classic short story, The Happy Prince, who never witnessed true sorrow during his lifetime due to confinement in the four walls of his palace. The analogy is not at all distant; this report is far away from the realities of the Global South and is clearly based on an occidental definition of “happiness”.

This annual report, devised by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and based on Gallup World Poll data that ranks countries based on their level of “happiness”, has been criticised in various corners and that too for valid reasons. For example, a UCLA report on the methods of World Happiness Index (WHI) titled “The Unhappy Quest for a Happiness Index” talks about some of the major methodological shortcomings. These shortcomings have resulted in biases in measurements and, eventually, in the rankings of the economies. This essay discusses at least seven points of departure from the core hypothesis of the report resulting from built-in biases that have tilted this entire ranking exercise in favour of the Global North.

Seven points of departure from the core hypothesis

The first point of departure lies with the cultural bias due to an occidental delineation of “happiness” that often does not apply to the developing and underdeveloped world. The survey questions are way too biased towards Western concepts of happiness, which may not apply to other cultures.

For example, the survey asks, “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?”. However, a particular group of people from specific cultures might not necessarily “laugh or smile a lot” when happy, rendering the methodology culturally biased. Furthermore, for a diverse country such as India, with so many different cultures, adequate measures must be taken to ensure proper representation of cultural groups in the survey, which is not the case. Hence, “culture” is a sticking point for behavioural definitions of happiness.

To address this issue, the survey questions could be adapted to reflect the cultural values of different countries better. Anirudh Krishna earlier pointed this out in his definition of development, where he talked about the “stages of progress” (SOP) approach. While occidental definitions of development and poverty are straitjacket definitions based on their own metrics, Krishna’s approach clearly shows that development needs to be construed from a community perspective. The same applies to “happiness”. Therefore, the sheer standardisation of the definition of “happiness” goes against the spirit of respecting cultural diversity.

The second point of departure lies with the response bias resulting in subjectivity. The report relies on self-reported data, which can be subject to biases and inaccuracies. Various perception-based surveys often account for this bias through the incorporation of a random disturbance term. However, if the question is kept open-ended, the possibility of response bias resulting in subjectivity increases. This has precisely been the case in this report.

For example, the survey asks – “Did you experience the following feelings during a lot of the day yesterday? How about Enjoyment?”. How does one obtain an objective response that can render itself to cardinal and ordinal measurement metrics with such questions? Creating an index based on perceptions that are again contingent upon open-ended questions is clearly flawed. The bigger flaw lies with coming to conclusions with such faulty measurements. Whereas the index could have considered incorporating more objective measures of happiness, such as social and economic well-being measures, it has not done so.

Thirdly, we observe a clear bias in the choice of the sample frame. The report is based on a survey of individuals in each country, but the sample size is relatively small. This can lead to biased results, especially in countries with large populations. The report states that it utilises the largest available sample but needs to clarify if the collected sample is adequate for robust and unbiased measures of the happiness index. Hence, it must consider increasing the sample size or using more advanced statistical methods. For a sizeable heterogeneous nation, a stratified random sampling process is of utmost need to conclude on the perception existing at a macro-scale. A complex and diverse system like India cannot be compared to a small island nation like Seychelles unless the sample frame is proper, represented, and adequate.

The fourth point of departure lies with the year-to-year changes in methodology that make comparing results from different years impossible. For example, the 2023 report uses a new variable corresponding to Institutional Trust, which isn’t present in the 2020 version of the report. This, in turn, makes it difficult to compare results from different years. To keep a certain level of parity, it must consider using a more consistent methodology over time, or at least provide guidelines to facilitate comparisons across years.

Fifth, the entire analysis has failed to control for the geopolitical factors that have crept into the comparative static framework, thereby, rendering another layer of bias to the analysis. Countries with higher economic and political power tend to score higher on the index, which may not accurately reflect the happiness levels of their citizens. The indicators must also investigate the country’s wealth distribution to understand the happiness disparity across the nation and apply more nuanced measures of happiness that consider all citizens’ experiences. The index focuses on a limited set of factors to measure happiness. It ignores other important factors such as job security, social mobility, income inequality, access to education, and a broad number of measures in healthcare. This leads to an incomplete and often inaccurate description of the factors defining “happiness” and can lead to skewed results, favouring a specific group of countries.

Sixth, the biggest flaw that this report has indulged in is through interpreting aspirations as “unhappiness”. The developing world is definitely going to be more aspirational and deserves to be so. However, that does not necessarily make them “unhappy”. In certain parts of Europe, degrowth as a philosophy has been talked about as the very next stage of their civilisation. This entails contraction from the existing development trajectory. Shall this be attributed to “dissatisfaction”, or shall this be looked at as “over-satiation”?

Seventh, questions can always be raised about the treatment of missing data in the report on two grounds: a) imputing missing values using predicted values from regression models assumes that the relationships between the factors are consistent across all countries, which may not always be accurate; b) extrapolating time series data to impute missing values assumes that the trends will continue as they have in the past, which may not hold true in the future. Since the authors have used the imputed values to generate country rankings, there is always a risk that imputation methods could introduce biases or errors in the analysis. These factors require further scrutiny of the imputation methodology and raise questions about the ranking itself.

So, what purpose does this report serve? To us, almost nothing. In fact, the only nation in the world that looks at every developmental or political intervention through the canons of Gross National Happiness, i.e., Bhutan, is missing from the entire list. Undoubtedly, the Bhutanese parameters of happiness and the parameters considered here are different. This again brings us back to the previous question: Is this exercise worth it? Does this reflect reality? Or is this again a report to manifest the superiority of the Global North over the Global South on the basis of its own chosen parameters? If that is the case, for once, let happiness be delineated through the lens of the Global South, and see who stands where.

*About the authors:

  • Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED), and ORF’s Kolkata Centre. He is also the Director of the Think20 Secretariat, the thinktank engagement group of G20 under the Indian Presidency. He is presently the President of the Indian Society for Ecological Economics (INSEE) (2022-24); Member, Research Advisory Committee, WWF India; and has been invited as Member, Global Future Council (Nature and Security), World Economic Forum in 2023.
  • Soumya Bhowmick is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, Observer Research Foundation. His research focus is on sustainable development, economics of globalization and Indian economics. He works closely with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Ease-of-Doing Business parameters.

Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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