The Statistics of an Emotion: 2017 World Happiness Report

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Can we define and measure happiness – put statistics to an emotion? Can we rank countries of the world quantitatively for the degree to which their people are happy? The fifth annual World Happiness Report,  released by the United Nations on March 20, 2017 has subject matter likely to appeal to students.  For Theory of Knowledge teachers, the report gives an excellent focusing example for discussing ways of knowing and methods of research, particularly for the human sciences.

Measuring happiness, says the UN website, is a cross-disciplinary topic: “The research on well-being – sometimes called happiness studies – can be found in a wide-range of fields including economics, business, psychology, sociology, political science, and education.”  The annual happiness report was initiated by the UN General Assembly in 2011, inviting member countries to use the happiness of their people as a measure of development. The first report, issued in April 2012, was under the leadership of Bhutan, the country which has officially adopted “gross national happiness” (not “gross domestic product” GDP) as its measure of development and as the goal of government. This year’s is the fifth annual report by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, published on March 20, the International Day of Happiness.

1. What is the World Happiness Report? How do we know – or find out?

An effective way to open the topic could be to send your students to the library and/or the web, for a limited amount of time, to gather information. Although gathering information takes more class time than simply filling them in on information yourself, the activity does push them to read more actively and prepare their thoughts for discussion. It’s helpful to give them guiding questions before they search, such as:

SOURCES: Why did you look where you did? How are you going to find the most reliable factual information? How are you going to find informed interpretive perspectives on the Happiness Report, to explain it more fully and evaluate it for its flaws and its strengths (according to the writer’s criteria)?

COMPARATIVE REPORTS: Did you notice differences in the way the Happiness Report was presented in different media, or by different writers? Did the articles you found outline the historic background of world happiness reports or focus only on this year’s results? Did the articles emphasize different parts of the scoring scale (to cheer, or to deplore the results!), or veer off the report onto related issues?

If you have international students who speak different languages, it would be interesting to take a quick sampling of international media coverage of this year’s World Happiness Report. (Do some countries ignore the report altogether?) For English media sources, you might find useful the “Media Roundup on World Happiness Report”.

Incidentally, I enjoyed the coverage in some Norwegian newspapers. With Norway placed in the top spot as the happiest country in the world, did its national papers brag about victory and metaphorically wave the flag? Not a chance. Having lived in Norway for a couple of years, I came to appreciate the cultural reluctance, shared with other egalitarian Nordic countries, to brag or try to show oneself as better than others. Admittedly, Aftenposten does point out immediately that Norway beat Denmark this year (Nordic rivalry), but without any exuberant national self-congratulation. And Dagbladet’s subheading immediately points out that some people are still unhappy. I smile as I wonder how the press in my own country (Canada) or other countries I know would present a result of coming tops!

2. How does rating at the top of the Happiness Report compare with winning the Olympics?

It’s entirely possible that students are a bit fuzzy on its rating, especially if they have read articles that present the happiness ranking in terms of competition – who has beaten whom, and who the “winners” are. Myself, I think students could clarify their thoughts in response to a quirky question like this one:

What are the similarities between The Happiness Report and the Olympics? What are the differences?

The similarities of international ranking are pretty superficial compared with the differences – such as the conscious participation in a competition, the clarity of the criteria for winning, the kind of criteria, the number of countries wanting to win according to those criteria, and the significance of the results. A silly comparison? Maybe. But it leads into a more analytical approach to what the measurement means and possibly lays aside some major misconceptions.

3. Can we measure happiness? What are the methods of this study?    

The questions that students raise about this report are likely to be affected by when during the TOK course you lead this discussion. Myself, I’d place a discussion of the Happiness Report in context of the human sciences, as part of a consideration of the breadth of this area of knowledge and its methods. I’d want students to compare the nature of WHAT is studied and HOW it is studied with the natural sciences and other fields of the human sciences.

In any case, a broadly inviting question is likely to raise points that you can then sequence for discussion. I’d suggest something like this:

Before you accepted the results of this study as informative and significant, what questions would you want to ask the researchers?  

I’d hope that students would generate questions centred on who was doing the survey and their qualifications to do so, what their declared purpose was for doing the study — and above all the whole methodology of the study. Some evident questions for a TOK teacher to pose include:

EMOTION AS A WAY OF KNOWING: The report is about emotion as a topic, rather than about emotion as a way of knowing something else. What, then, seems to be the role of emotion as a way of knowing in this study, in terms of what is being measured and how it is being measure? (The basic method of study is to ask people to give an evaluation of their lives on a 10-point scale, with 0 being the worst possible.)

LANGUAGE AS A WAY OF KNOWING: What is the role of language as a way of knowing in the methods of this study? How is the central concept defined for measurement (“happiness”)? What difficulties might you anticipate in creating equivalent studies in different languages?

Responding to the next question has to involve not speculation but information, possibly already gathered by students in their reading activity.

HOW WAS THE RESEARCH DONE? In what ways have the methods of the happiness reports of the past 5 years used techniques characteristic of the human sciences (even if studying happiness is not a characteristic subject)? To what extent should the conclusions of this study be taken as factual and precise, and to what extent taken as subjective broad indicators?

I recommend going straight to the source for an explanation:

  • This United Nations website gives the larger context for this year’s Happiness Report: International Day of Happiness, Measuring Well-Being: Quick Guide.
  • This website gives the report itself, which can be read online or downloaded in whole or in chapters: Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2017). World Happiness Report 2017, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Its introduction gives the criteria applied for explanation:

“All of the other countries in the top ten…have high values in all six of the key variables used to explain happiness differences among countries and through time – income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”

  • A useful account of the methods is given under the site’s “frequently asked questions”, questions that you can hope that your own students will immediately have posed: “How are the rankings calculated?” (formulation of the question, methods of gaining the survey sample, survey size, number of countries surveyed)

4. What are the implications of the World Happiness Report?

In Theory of Knowledge, we use concepts of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” rather carefully, recognizing different notions of both and the value of both.

For me, I confess, the balance of subjectivity and objectivity in the World Happiness Report provokes conflicting reactions. On the one hand, I’m skeptical: the data on which it is built is subjective, and the individuals doing their life evaluations can apply the 1-10 scale in a way that varies according to such factors as interpretation of language, cultural influences on self-representation, personal expectations of life, personal temperament, and even the circumstances of the day. Although the methods of treating the data may be statistically sound, the data itself is not “hard evidence”. Moreover, the study cannot take into account the well-being of future generations, so it needs to be read in the larger context of sustainability.

On the other hand, I am certainly ready to accept as informative surveys that, through large numbers in a sample, give a general tendency and broad comparisons. The human sciences are dealing with human subject matter, and cannot reach the universal conclusions to which the natural sciences aspire.

Moreover, how people evaluate their own lives, seen across large populations groups, is surely significant in any discussion of development goals. The subjectivity of the data, individually and collectively, is what makes the study a valuable addition to an understanding of what people are experiencing in the world. The report (chapter 2) stresses that it is measuring “subjective well-being” – with the subjectivity being its significant contribution. It provides a complement or a counter to considering development primarily in terms of money and GDP.

So what, then, are the implications of accepting the 2017 World Happiness Report as sound and informative – as knowledge?

Could it be used by managers in organizations or governments to make the lives of their people better? Such is the goal of this particular study, in context of the United Nations and sustainable development, and, as it says in its introductory overview, “The report, the fifth one to come out since 2012, continues to gain global recognition as governments, organizations and civil society increasingly use happiness indicators to inform their policy-making decisions.”

Yet such a generally positive response is not a necessary one: the implications of the study – in terms, that is, of action – rest on how the social factors given in explanation are interpreted and what they are used to justify or promote. And that depends on the political and economic will and power of different players around the world.

But, for TOK, what we care most about is what we ourselves can use the report to justify or promote! Clearly, treating it in class could raise discussion about ways of knowing, methods of research, and characteristics of some parts of the human sciences. The fact that the report is about happiness, though, is probably its greatest appeal: for me the strongest motivation for using this report as a focusing example for discussion would be the reflections with which a TOK discussion, applied to well-being across the world, would surely leave our students.

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