Against all the odds, the world is becoming a happier place
Over the past 25 years, economic growth in developing countries has translated into big increases in happiness, but people in richer countries have seen much more modest improvements.
Despite deepening economic gloom and impending climatic destruction the world is becoming a happier place, according to an analysis of quarter of a century of data on wellbeing from 45 countries around the globe. The finding goes against the received wisdom that a country's economic advances do not translate into increased wellbeing among its citizens.
The researchers who compiled the data believe increasing levels of happiness were not picked up until now because studies have tended to focus on rich countries where increases in wealth make little difference to their citizens' satisfaction with life.
"The classic view, which we are not disputing, is that there are diminishing marginal returns to economic development," said Roberto Foa at Harvard University. "So for initial levels of economic development people are escaping subsistence poverty and people's subjective levels of happiness will increase."
Once their basic needs have been fulfilled - having shelter, enough food to eat and so on - then further economic development doesn't lead to more happiness in a straightforward linear way, said Foa. Social scientists call this the "hedonic treadmill" – like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, you keep running but don't make any progress.
However, the new analysis does suggest that measurable increases in happiness have been occurring over the past 25 years. It used data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study, which conduct regular standardised questionnaire studies in a group of countries that between them contain 90% of the world's population.
The present study, which is published in Perspectives on Psychological Science and is reported in New Scientist, used data from the 52 countries with the most complete data set from 1981 to 2007. Of these, 40 showed an increase in average happiness - as measured by their "subjective wellbeing" score - while in 12 countries happiness levels dropped. The average percentage of people saying they were "very happy" rose by 7%.
The advantage of comparing data from these surveys is that in each case the questions were asked in the same way, so changes are likely to reflect real changes in happiness rather than different ways of answering a slightly different set of questions.
Of the most improved countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Slovenia showed the largest hikes in average happiness while at the bottom of the table were Hungary, India and Australia. The US was firmly mid-table at 29th with Britain four places behind. However, both countries did better when it came to changes in the size of the happiest group of people. In Britain, the number of people saying they were "very happy" went up by around 13%. The equivalent figure for the US was around 8%. In Mexico, the number of people in that category went up by nearly 25%, a bigger rise than in any other country.
As in previous analyses of the data, Latin American countries come out as particularly happy – more so than you would expect based on their GDP alone. "Happiness is the gap between what you have and what you expect to have in life. If that gap is very small then you are happy, and if it is quite wide then naturally you are quite unhappy," said Foa.
To get happier you can either reduce your expectations or increase what you have. Foa believes that the strong religious and family traditions of Latin American societies have served to help people come to terms with what they have, while at the same time they have advanced steadily economically – so the happiness gap has been narrowed from both ends.
Another major finding from the survey is that personal freedoms, democracy and a tolerant society are important for a nation's overall happiness, particularly in richer societies. Happiness on a national scale correlated well with high scores in an index measuring how accepting people were of having immigrants, homosexuals and people of different races as their neighbours.
"In more affluent societies, people give higher priority to free choice and self-expression, which accordingly, play an increasingly important role in shaping their wellbeing," the authors write. "People living in more tolerant societies tend to be happier, regardless of their own beliefs."
Wednesday August 27 2008 18:00 BST