Does Miserable Weather Make People Happy?

Photo credit: Serhiy Lvivsky. Finland has beautiful landscapes, but isn't it dark and cold?
- Advertisement -

Who are the happiest people in the world? According to the World Happiness Report, it’s the residents of  Finland, Denmark, Iceland, (which have miserable climates), sunny  Israel and the cloudy Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Palestinians, who have lived for decades under Israeli military occupation, rank 99th.

So sunshine has nothing to do with it?

Every year, a United Nations-backed organisation publishes a report that ranks countries based on “happiness”. A few years ago Jamaica rated as the happiest country in the Caribbean, and Trinidad has also held that title.

From 2013 to 2015 The Dominican Republic was rates one of the happiest countries in the world, but now seems to have fallen to rather glum 69th place, although still well ahead of neighboring Haiti, which beats only Afhanistan and a couple of other places.

St. Kitts & Nevis is too small to have a ranking.

Do these rankings mean anything at all?

The rankings themselves are based on Gallup surveys of a few thousand participants in each country who are asked to personally rate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10.

This “life evaluation”, in other words, is someone’s stated personal opinion of how content they are with their life at that particular point in time. That information is then coupled with some other factors and presented in the annual World Happiness Report.

But critics have pointed out glaring contradictions, blind spots and biases, including a seeming inclination towards rich Western nations – the Global North – that ignores centuries of colonial exploitation that enabled them to gather that wealth.

Finland, for example, holds the top spot as the world’s happiest country – as it has for the past six years.

But the country also has some of the highest rates of antidepressant use in Europe. The same is true for Sweden, which ranks sixth, and Iceland, which ranks second – and has the highest reported antidepressant use in all of Europe.

Meanwhile, India ranks 126th – extremely low – on the World Happiness Report, but places much, much higher in a separate poll, which also factors in variables like work-life balance. Another competing report, known as the Global Happiness Report, ranked China as the world’s happiest country.

Researchers have noticed a correlation: countries with high GDP per capita are often the ones that rank highest on the happiness rankings. The top 20 countries on the list, after all, are largely Western countries with high economic indicators, leading many to conclude that GDP per capita is the most important factor in determining a country’s overall happiness.

But GDP per capita does not take into account income inequality. It is simply the total value of goods and services generated per year in a country, divided by the total population. It tells us nothing about who gets a country’s wealth and who does not, nor how much of it is concentrated in the hands of the few.

The United States, which ranks 15th on the happiness index, has significantly more income inequality than just about any other developed nation, according to one of the world’s most widely cited measures of income inequality. It’s a country where some 38 million Americans live in poverty – officially – and nearly 60 percent of the population lives paycheque to paycheque.

Gallup’s website says they poll “the entire civilian, non-institutionalised adult population of the country” for the data that feeds the happiness report.

But that excludes populations who live in institutions like prisons, nursing homes and senior centres, to name a few.

What’s more, the researchers don’t survey civilians in areas they believe are unsafe (ie, “where the safety of the interviewing staff is threatened”).

It’s unclear how many population centres that may exclude – especially in deeply unequal societies, or in countries with significant imprisoned populations, like the US and Brazil, where a disproportionate share of inmates are Black.

Then there’s the issue of cultural bias, a common critique of the happiness report.

The basic idea is stated quite clearly in a 2023 study: “How can one conclude that wellbeing is higher in country A than country B when wellbeing is being measured according to the way people in country A think about wellbeing?”

The problem with the happiness report, these researchers say, is that asking people to rate how happy or satisfied they are is akin to viewing the issue through a Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic – or “WEIRD” – lens, which they describe as much more individualistic and achievement-oriented.

Source: Al Jazeera. United Nations Happiness Index.
- Advertisement -