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Is national happiness measurable?

12 July 20150 comments

AMES_1536They say that money doesn’t buy you happiness; and, if the latest global survey of well-being is any indication, that aphorism rings true.

The ‘State of Global Well-being’ report puts Panama — a tiny sliver of land with one of the world’s busiest shipping routes — as the most content place on the planet along with its Central American neighbours.

There are fewer Panamanians than people living in Sydney, but it seems they are better off even when their gross domestic product per capita is just $US11,036 ($14,265), less than a sixth that of Australia.

Panama was followed by Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Switzerland. Australia ranked 40th in the list of the 50 best-off countries, far behind the US (rank 23), New Zealand (29) and Ireland (36), but ahead of the UK (44) and Russia (47).

The results are based on 146,000 interviews with adults across 145 countries and areas throughout all of last year. Participants were asked 10 questions focusing on their purpose and ambitions, their social setting and love in their lives, their finances, where they live, the pride they take in their community and how healthy and energetic they fell.

Globally, only 17 per cent of the population are thriving in three or more question areas. The highest percentage thriving is found in community well-being, with 26 per cent of survey respondents falling into this category, according to the survey produced by Gallup-Healthways – a partnership between the pollster and the US health provider.

Survey respondents are least likely to have strong ambitions for the future, at 18 per cent.

“Well-being levels across populations are influenced, in part, by demographics,” the report said.

“Respondents in the wealthiest quartile, those who have completed at least four years of education beyond high school, and those who are married or in a domestic partnership are most likely to be thriving in three or more elements of well-being, with a range between 23 per cent and 26 per cent,” it said.

“Respondents living on less than 1.25 international dollars (ID) per day, those who have completed an elementary education or less, and those who work in the fishing or agriculture sector are least likely to be thriving in three or more elements of well-being, with a range between 10 per cent and 11 per cent.”

The Americas
The report said that among all regions globally, the Americas have the highest levels of well-being in three or more elements and in purpose, social, community, and physical well-being.

“In socially and family-oriented Latin America, social well-being is the best-performing element, with 43 per cent of the population thriving. Latin Americans generally report higher levels of well-being than any other regional group,” it said.

The division between a developed north and a developing south is the most obvious driver of well-being differences in the Americas, the reports found.

“The well-being gap is particularly large for financial well-being, with high thriving levels in northern countries (US, 39 per cent; Canada, 52 per cent) and relatively low levels in southern countries (Brazil, 19 per cent; Colombia, 20 per cent).

“There are also important north-south differences in community well-being, which is lowest in Southern Hemisphere countries. These percentages may reflect the plight of those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods; particularly in Latin America’s mega-cities with their high levels of crime, traffic and pollution.”

The reports said well-being in the Americas was more complex than the simplistic view of a developed north versus a developing south.

“The gap between south and north may be reversed for elements such as purpose, with southern countries such as Brazil (45 per cent thriving) outperforming the US (34 per cent) and Canada (36 per cent).”

Is national happiness measurable-graphic

Asian respondents generally have lower levels of well-being compared with global percentages, the report found.

“In purpose well-being (13 per cent) and social well-being (19 per cent), Asians are four or five percentage points below the global percentages (18 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively) in thriving.

“This may partly result from cultural norms as well as from lower development, work environment, and economic issues that affect the wellbeing of respondents in Asia.”

Well-being in Europe varies considerably by country, the report said. Twenty-two per cent of Europeans overall are thriving in purpose well-being.

“However, in southern and Eastern European countries such as Albania, Croatia, and Greece, where unemployment remains high, residents are much less likely to be thriving in this element (7 per cent to 8 per cent) than those in Western European nations such as Denmark (45 per cent), Austria (36 per cent), and Sweden (33 per cent), where unemployment rates are much lower,” the report said.

“As a whole, Europeans are most likely to be thriving in financial well-being, at 37 per cent, although there is a broad range among individual countries, from 11 per cent in Greece to 72 per cent in Sweden.”

Among former Soviet states, endemic corruption and chronic instability following the collapse of the Soviet Union have made life unpredictable and have eroded public services established under Soviet rule. 

While more than 40 per cent of the Australians questioned felt well and secure in their financial situation, less than a third felt healthy or liked what they do each day.

At first glance, the results may appear surprising. How can Panamanians be the happiest people on the planet? Isn’t Puerto Rico going bankrupt? Doesn’t Guatemala have one of the world’s highest murder rates?

The survey tells us that raw data is not the only measure of how a country or a people is faring.

Raw data does not take into account nuances, expectations and cultural norms. Maybe the question should not be, for example, how much you earn but whether you earn enough to meet your needs.

It is perhaps illustrative then that the worst places to be were Afghanistan, Cameroon and Bhutan, which famously gauges its success as a nation not through its gross economic product, but its gross national happiness.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist