Don’t Worry, be (equally) Happy: The Inequality of Happiness
The World Happiness Report, that annual-ish ranker of the world’s chillest, smiliest, most satisfied countries (a contest in which Scandinavia regularly kicks the rest of the world’s teeth in), this year added a new dimension to its analysis: Inequality.
Normally we talk about inequality in terms of economics, disparities in income, the wealth of the 1 percent versus the wealth of the remaining 99, etc. But in this case “inequality” was a measure of the distribution of people’s answers to this question:
“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”
The normal world happiness ranking is based on each country’s average answer to that question. The top country by that measure was Denmark, with an average answer of 7.526, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. (No surprise). The bottom five were Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria, and Burundi in last place with an average answer of 2.905. The United States clocked in at number 13, with an average answer of 7.104
But when the researchers looked at how people’s answers were spread out, a different picture emerged. Here is the distribution of answers across the whole world:
Population-Weighted Distributions of Happiness, 2012-2015
The most common answer is five, dead in the middle. In different regions however, answers are distributed differently.
Population-Weighted Distributions of Happiness, by Region
The top five most equal countries when it comes to happiness are Bhutan, Comoros, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Iceland. (Iceland being the only one in the top 5 for both average happiness and equality.) The five most unequal countries are Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan. The United States is in 85th place.
The researchers also found that most countries are getting more unequal. Comparing the period between 2005 and 2011 to the period between 2012 and 2015, “about a tenth [of countries] had significant reductions in happiness inequality, while more than half had significant increases,” the report reads. “The remaining one-third of countries showed no significant change.”
This isn’t a perfect measurement of a country’s well-being. For example, Afghanistan is the ninth most equal country, but the fourth-lowest in terms of overall happiness. The Afghans, it seems, are pretty equally unhappy. (Source: Atlantic Monthly, April 7, 2016)