“Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not happy at all?” That was the question put by the Ipsos research group to 18,687 adults in 24 countries during the first half of November last year as the culmination of a 5 year ongoing survey.
The results? Following publication in the first issue of What Makes You Happy magazine, two aspects have been highlighted in the inevitable flurry of internet reporting that has picked up on this.
Firstly, that the world is overall a happier place than before the current global financial crisis, up two percentage points on 2007. Secondly, that money doesn’t make people happy: the wealthier countries are not at the top.
If the first seems to have been a bit of a shock, the second should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Whilst it is an unfortunate fact of life that the lack of money can create misery, money itself does not buy happiness; it never has and never will. Only one in six Europeans claimed to be very happy, compared to half of the Indonesians interviewed. It seems that where happiness is perceived as a right — what I deserve simply by virtue of being alive — it becomes ever more elusive. Ad-fuelled consumerism serves merely to boost this disillusionment. Put at its simplest, where “things” are believed to make us happy, then the lack of these things, not enough things — or at least less than our neighbour has — or the fact that we still have last year’s thing, spells unhappiness. In Jesus’ own words, “Life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12:15, NLT); true life, at least.
The panorama in Indonesia, India, Mexico or Brazil seems to be somewhat different. Achievement is something to be pursued, not waited for idly, and the raw vitality needed to stay ahead whilst striving towards a bright future can bring great exhiliration. Education still has value, for it might just help you succeed in life. Compared with the tired old West, young professionals in these nations are like teenagers itching to take on the world. Success may still be measured in terms of material prosperity, but anticipation of future potential rather than frustration with present lack seems to be the order of the day.
Then what about the world being a happier place? Western countries have taken a severe bashing in the current financial climate, and, other than the top bankers with their now state-subsidised bonuses, there are clearly a lot of not-so-happy campers around; losing a house or a job is never going to bring a smile to anyone’s face. Whilst all this has had some knock-on effects around the world (obviously, if we are buying fewer televisions, China must be manufacturing less), non-Western nations have not generally been guilty of the unrestrained financial malpractice, unchecked government budget deficits or the inflated housing price bubble that have been at the root of the West’s woes. It is natural that now they have less to cry about.
But even so, is it fair to say that the world is a happier place? After all, this study looks at just 24 countries; that leaves 172 that were not included. We find no mention of Iraq or Afganistan, current centres of conflict, nor of any of the countries touched by the “Arab Spring” such as Egypt, Syria,Tunisia or Libya. The world’s poorest countries are also conspicuous by their absence. On a global level, it is hardly a representative sample.
Over and above that huge imbalance, the statistics and the methods by which these were obtained are, at best, highly questionable, to say nothing of the conclusions being offered. Take the concept of happiness itself — how is this perceived? Are the different countries talking about the same beast? Even if they are, the way the question is phrased renders it completely subjective, asking for a purely temporary perception of happiness. The accurate definition and measurement of happiness has successfully eluded serious psychological enquiry to date; this study is not destined to buck that trend. As a piece of “market research” it is received and reproduced surprisingly uncritically by such respected journals as The Economist, so much so that one is left wondering whether any of these have even read the original report or have all gleaned their information from a Reuters summary; publication in any academic media would soon attract a different kind of comment.
What kind of people answered the survey? As answers were collected using the “Ipsos Online Panel” — no other details are given — one can only surmise that at the very least they were computer literate, if not computer or smartphone owners themselves. Compared with the majority population struggling to take home a decent daily wage, if I were a Mexican in a position to answer this survey on my new tablet, I might well be inclined to describe myself as “very happy”.
Simple cultural differences also need to be given more weight. We Brits are famous the world over for a “‘stiff upper lip” and naturally tend to shy away from superlatives. It should come as no surprise, then, that month in, month out only 20-25% could describe themselves as “very happy” compared with twice that number of Mexicans or Brazilians, stereotypically known for more effusive displays of emotion than most of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects.
Is the recorded upwards trend in fact even significant? Statistically, there is little worth reporting. Minor fluctuations apart, what happened in China in 2007, for example, to account for a jump from 59% of happy people to 92% six months later, then back to 57% a further six months down the road? The survey itself reports that an “unweighted probability sample of this size and a 100% response rate would have an estimated margin of error of +/-3.1 percentage points for a sample of 1,000” (full survey available from Ipsos here); not only is the 2% increase less than the potential margin of error but they also fail to give their actual response rate. Even this is not giving the whole picture. In stating that with 22% “very happy” the world is 2% happier in 2011 than in 2007, they fail to mention that this is with respect to April 2007; in October 2007 there were also 22% who claimed to be “very happy”. In March and April 2010 there were 26%, and 25% through the rest of that year, so should that not in fact mean we are more miserable than a year ago?
Happiness starts on the inside, and is fundamentally a reflection of our “shalom”, peace with others, with ourselves, and with God. Happy, indeed, are the people whose God is the Lord (Ps.144:15).
And wealth? Destitute poverty erodes the soul. But beyond that, happiness cannot be rooted in riches. We need to find a way to make Paul’s words ours: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ,who gives me strength” (Phil.4:11-13, NLT).
And you know what? I think I can say that I am happy with this post, so had better get on and hit the “Publish” button :-)