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There is a sort of comfort on paper when it comes to statistics. When we ask things like “What is the average amount of times someone brushes their teeth per day?” Statistics provide a tangible picture of the world we live in by creating more verifiable generalizations. When we hear something like “70% of dogs bark at squirrels outside,” we can use that to inform our own opinions about the world we live in—most, but not all, dogs bark at squirrels. While this works for data that can be observed, what about things that aren’t so simple? How can we define things that we already have a hard time defining in the first place? Enter the World Happiness Report.
The World Happiness Report is a report commissioned by the United Nations and conducted by researchers to help measure and draw conclusions from statistics regarding happiness and other factors. First, researchers take data from a Gallup poll and then use its results to try to explain what country is the happiest and perhaps why it is as happy as it is (World Happiness Report). The way the study ranks countries’ happiness is through a “Cantrill Score.” This means that the survey asks the person to rank their lives between one and ten. One symbolizes the worst life that they can imagine, and ten symbolizes the best life they can imagine. The person then assigns a number where their life falls. The Cantrill Score tries to measure life satisfaction (which is assumed to be equal to happiness). Norway and Denmark rate the highest with scores of 7.537 and 7.522. The United States is number 14 at 6.993. The lowest ranking country is the Central African Republic with a score of 2.693. The survey also asks questions about perceived corruption, generosity, and how much the person has laughed or smiled in that day. These categories, among others, act to try to explain the Cantrill Scores (rating your happiness between one and ten). The Cantrill Score (life satisfaction score from 1 to 10) for the purpose of measuring happiness seems like a good start, but it may not be complete. The score assesses one’s life satisfaction relative to what the best life possible would be, but does life satisfaction equal happiness? On that scale, does a 10 amount to true happiness? This survey also assumes that the person taking the survey understands and is confident in the idea of what true happiness means to them.
Gallup, the same poller that gets these Cantrill Scores, also has another survey that presents another set of scores called the Positive and Negative experience indices in an attempt to find out how happy countries are. The survey asks whether or not someone has had any positive or negative experiences within the past day, such as being treated with respect or feeling enjoyment, worry, or physical pain. The scores that countries get depend on how many times that a surveyed person answers "yes" or "no" to positive and negative experiences. In this case, Paraguay and Costa Rica have the highest proportion of positive experiences, and Iraq and South Sudan had the highest proportion of negative experiences. However, Yemen and Turkey lead in the lowest proportion of positive experiences, and Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reported the lowest amount of negative experiences. It’s hard to say at this point what measurement proves whether or not a country is the most or least happy even within the survey results. If Paraguay reports the highest proportion of positive experiences, but Kyrgyzstan reports the least amount of negative experiences, which country could be called happier? This also creates the problem of defining things like stress and enjoyment. If someone has stress generally in their life, but didn't have a noticeably stressful day yesterday, does that mean that person should say yes or no? Do positive experiences even lead to actual happiness? It may just symbolize that someone has a pleasant life among other people, but it doesn't really show that the person is actually happy.
To be able to measure things, statistics is a way to try to help understand the world a little better than we did before. However, we run into problems when it comes to trying to define things such as happiness using statistics. Because we can’t really reach into the heads of people, we try to use data from surveys to be able to get close enough to an answer on what metric best defines happiness. Some would argue that this comes down to life satisfaction, but it’s hard to say whether or not being close to your ideal life would actually mean that you are happy where you are. Perhaps happiness could be better measured in regard to positive experiences you’ve had within the past day. The difficulty here is that pleasant and painful experiences may not be a good show of happiness either. Does enjoyment really mean happiness? Would one’s definition of stress the day before mean the same as another’s? As we try to work on making measurements for the things that are difficult to measure, we seem to run into more questions than answers. I myself am not sure what the real answer is—people spend their whole lives searching for what happiness means, so it’s hard to say if statistics can help.
Rose Smith is the blog editor of Twenty-two Twenty-eight. When she isn’t writing about the world around her, she is often found listening to music, watching movies, and going on walks with her dogs.