Numbers on ‘happiness’
The annual International Day of Happiness (March 20) saw the release of World Happiness Report (WHR) 2023 recently. In this 10th WHR since the Day was established by the United Nations in 2012, Finland, scoring 7.80 on a 10-point scale, emerges as “the happiest country in the world” for the sixth consecutive year. Are the Finns really such a happy people?
Well, let’s review the survey question. The respondents are shown an image of an upright ladder, with the ground marked “0” and 10 steps marked from “1” to “10.” They are told that the top represents “the best possible life,” and the bottom (the ground) represents “the worst possible life” for them. Then they are asked: “On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” This is Cantril’s ladder, named for Hadley Cantril (1906-1969), American psychologist and opinion research pioneer. It is self-anchored by the respondent’s imagination of the possible very best and very worst. (An alternative is to call the two ends the very best and the very worst in the respondent’s experience.)Finland’s ladder scores were 7.889 in 2020, 7.794 in 2021, and 7.729 in 2022—falling, take note—for a 2020 to 2022 average of 7.80, making it No.1 of 137 countries/territories, by the WHR’s three-year moving average ranking system. Afghanistan’s 1.86 average makes it No.137 or last. The median rank No.69 goes to Bolivia; its average is 5.68.
The Philippines’ 5.52 made it No. 76, but it is one of 23 countries without 2022 data. Its 6.3 in 2019 was its record high. It fell to 5.1 in 2020 and bounced back to 6.0 in 2021, and only those two years were used by WHR 2023. Another 6.3 in 2022 would have put its 2020-22 average at 5.8 and raised its rank to No. 65 instead.
But why be too concerned about rank? In my view, the important objective should be for us Filipinos to get happier over time, compared to the past, rather than to get happier compared to other peoples.
Cantril’s ladder asks for a numbered position within a range of life qualities, spanning the best possible and the worst possible, but is too shy to use a descriptive term like “happy.” Though it cannot demarcate “happy” from “unhappy,” yet it can point to the direction of change over time.
Here is the entire series of Philippine ladder-ratings, from the WHR 2023 appendix: 2006, 4.7; 2007, 5.1; 2008, 4.6; 2009, 4.9; 2010, 4.9; 2011, 5.0; 2012, 5.0; 2013, 5.0; 2014, 5.3; 2015, 5.5; 2016, 5.4; 2017, 5.6; 2018, 5.9; 2019, 6.3; 2020, 5.1; 2021, 6.0. Note that in 2006-13. the rating range was 4.6-5.0; then in 2014-21, it became 5.1-6.3. Aside from the pandemic-affected 5.1 in 2020, the ratings clearly improved.
Recent country changes in the ladder-ratings over time. WHR 2023 counts 135 country changes in average ladder-ratings between 2008-12 and 2020-22, or roughly over the past decade. Of these, 75 were increases (from +0.02 to +1.48), and 60 were decreases (from -0.003 to -2.56). The biggest rise was in Bulgaria (+1.48); the biggest fall was in Lebanon (-2.56).
The Philippines ranks No. 30 among the 135 ladder-changes, with +0.62, much above the median (which is No.68 Iran, +0.14). Other notable improvements are: No. 16 China (+0.94); No.39 Taiwan (+0.48); No. 44 Finland (+0.34); No. 46 Malaysia (+0.32); No. 52 Vietnam (+0.28); No. 55 Cambodia (+0.24); No. 56 Laos (+0.24); No. 66 Japan (+0.15); and No. 71 Singapore (+0.07). Thus the Philippines is the biggest gainer in Southeast Asia over the past decade.
Among the notable ladder-falls are: No. 77 Indonesia (-0.01); No. 84 Myanmar (-0.07); No. 90 Hong Kong (-0.12); No. 101 Australia (-0.23); No. 102 United States (-0.23); No. 105 Thailand (-0.25); No. 117 Canada (-0.52); and No. 125 India (-0.75).To monitor happiness, why not survey it directly? There are regular SWS national surveys of how many Filipinos feel Very Happy, Somewhat Happy, Not Very Happy, and Not At All Happy, i.e. asking respondents to choose from only four instead of 11 answers, each verbally described rather than numbered. Unhappiness is more urgent to monitor than happiness. It has almost always been double-digit, often over 20 percent of adults, even pre-pandemic. It fluctuates both upwards and downwards, and has been shown as driven by poverty and hunger (“The happiness measurement biz,” 12/17/22).
I imagine that a third important driver of unhappiness is the feeling of injustice—personal injustice or social injustice, or both. The measurement of injustice is a worthy challenge for future research.
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