Just how happy is Australia, exactly?

What it means that our World Happiness ranking has slipped

‘Australia slips in the World Happiness rankings.’

The New Daily ran that headline recently and the article was about the 2019 World Happiness Report.

Comparisons are very likely to make us discontent and dissatisfied with what we have.

According to this report, Australia has slipped out of the top ten happiest countries for the first time. Now, Australia is at number 11.

Australia has dropped two places since 2016, replaced by Austria and another unnamed country.

This article is the sort we’ve become used to seeing during the past few years. Since the 1990s or so, research on happiness as a serious academic pursuit has skyrocketed.

Tens of thousands of research articles published every year, as well as the global ‘World Happiness Report’ which (since 2012) summarises many findings. I am writing a book about a theological approach to happiness, having spent several years working on this rich subject.

The global happiness rankings do appear to be particularly newsworthy. Seems we’re all interested to see where our country is positioned, and whether those icy cold Nordic countries have somehow managed to come out on top yet again.

Yet in several ways, I find the existence of these national rankings – and the way they can be reported – somewhat odd.

Firstly, why do we have such an obsession with creating this global national table? Why, in the interest of happiness studies, do these comparative tables exist – and why is it so popular to publicise them?

These studies are about comparing one nation to another. Yet it’s been well established since happiness started being researched seriously, that one of the things most likely to make us unhappy is comparing ourselves to others. It’s actually a fairly damaging thing to do.

Comparisons are very likely to make us discontent and dissatisfied with what we have. It feeds our ‘hedonic treadmill’ – failing to appreciate what’s good in our lives – and makes us feel inadequate in the face of the other’s perceived advantages. In other words, it makes us unhappy.

Consider, for example, the growing awareness of psychological problems associated with social media. One of the dangers of social media is that people compare themselves to others, in their appearance, lifestyle, achievements, wittiness and especially ‘likes’. It makes people put up the best version of their lives, if not a totally false version, and so the comparison with one’s own life seems even worse. The effect is insidious; social media use is strongly linked to depression and other psychological ills. When we can compare ourselves to the most beautiful and wealthy people all over the world, we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness.

How ironic, then, that happiness itself becomes a thing to compare. Just what exactly is this going to achieve?

Perhaps if this data were included as input to a government thinktank that was trying to decide, say, whether to adopt some aspect of Finland’s public policy as opposed to Sweden’s, the comparative data would be useful. Perhaps if researchers were trying to establish empirically whether Switzerland’s model of social support is more effective than New Zealand’s, then it is useful to do this research and publish it. But why is it so frequently reported in popular news? Again I ask: Just what is it going to accomplish?

It is entirely possible for someone to have many good things in life and yet feel miserable.

The second thing that amuses me is the way the happiness rankings are reported. The first sentence of The New Daily article is: “The results are in and it’s official. Australians are becoming increasingly unhappy.”

Are we? How do we know that when, in this article, only the basic rankings are included. Australia used to be in the top ten, but now it is eleventh. But we don’t know why it happened. Why do we assume that it’s because Australians are now unhappier? It could be that we are exactly as happy as last year, but that Austria and at least one other country have recently had a super bonus year and are much happier than normal. Why couldn’t the headline be, let’s rejoice for Austria, because they’re doing really well? Either conclusion is equally valid in the absence of other metrics – and we have not been given those other metrics. Why the gloomy conclusion?

Finally, it interests me that although this ranking is reported as measuring happiness, when we look at what is being discussed it’s actually quite a lot of things. ‘The report ranks countries on six key variables: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity’, we’re told. Also, ‘This year’s report had a special focus on “happiness and the community”, considering factors such as social media and technology, social norms, conflicts and government policies … Among other factors going into the assessment were gross domestic product per capita, healthy life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom to make life choices, and perceptions of corruption.’

Well, good. These are all good things for a society to have (assuming the perception of corruption is low). Yet we’re told that what the ranking is about is people’s ‘happiness’. Doesn’t that seem odd?

It pays to be aware of how language is used. In social policy research, and to some extent psychology, there is a fairly large school of thought that defines happiness as being a positive life situation, encompassing a range of factors. That is fine; such researchers are clear about what they are measuring. However this is not what ’happiness’ generally means in common parlance, such as the kind of language that is more normally used in newspapers.

Think about what we value and what we would really want for a country.

For most newspaper readers, I would guess, ’happy’ means ‘feeling happy’; it is not, strictly speaking, the same thing as income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. These might be things that could make you feel happy; but they might not. It is entirely possible for someone to have many good things in life and yet feel miserable. Or to have objectively difficult circumstances but still feel fine.

In fact, if you look at the fine print of the World Happiness Report, Australia scores more highly on ‘positive affect’ (feeling good) than Finland, the number one country. It also scores considerably more highly than Finland on ‘negative affect’. Which goes to show that the report is much more complicated than a simple league table ranking would suggest.

So what do we make of this report? It’s not something that can be reduced to a headline and, more importantly, there is no reason to despair.

What it might do, though, is make us think about what we value and what we would really want for a country.

Kirsten Birkett is a Latimer Research Fellow. She is writing a book on a theological approach to happiness.

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