2015 World Happiness Report

A huge study of happiness (aka senses of subjective well-being) has evaluated all the countries in the world:

The 2015 World Happiness Report is the third of its kind and is edited by a team of renowned academics and analysts – among them American economist Jeffrey Sachs and head of the London School of Economics’ ‘wellbeing’ programme, Richard Laynard.

Amazingly, the top 10 scorers are… well…

  1. Switzerland
  2. Iceland
  3. Denmark
  4. Norway
  5. Canada
  6. Finland
  7. Netherlands
  8. Sweden
  9. New Zealand
  10. Australia

Notice a pattern?

From the study’s conclusion:

There is a common social theme that emerges consistently from the World Happiness Report 2015. At both the individual and national levels, all measures of well-being, including emotions and life evaluations, are strongly influenced by the quality of the surrounding social norms and institutions. These include family and friendships at the individual level, the presence of trust and empathy at the neighborhood and community levels, and power and quality of the over- arching social norms that determine the quality of life within and among nations and generations. When these social factors are well-rooted and readily available, communities and nations are more resilient, and even natural disasters can add strength to the community as it comes together in response.

The challenge is to ensure that policies are designed and delivered in ways that enrich the social fabric, and teach the pleasure and power of empathy to current and future generations. Under the pressures of putting right what is obviously wrong, there is often too little attention paid to building the vital social fabric.

Of course, while the study controlled for gender and age, it did not control for race, probably the most salient and statistically significant variable they could look at.

I wonder why that might be?

I mean, did anyone involved with the study try to correlate happiness in a country with, say, the percentage of non-hispanic whites in that respective country? In other words, might it be the case that the more white and racially homogenous a country is, the higher its rate of happiness? Might then, the best predictor be some combination of whiteness, racial homogeneity, ancestral ties to the geography, Lockean individual freedoms, and/or more universalistic, Aristotelian, social welfare programs?

About ten years ago, liberal academic Robert Putnam famously and reluctantly concluded that the more ‘diverse’ (racially mixed) a geographic region is, the less social capital there is as a result. People of all races in such a region trust each other less, don’t get to know their neighbors, help each other out less, etc.

From the Report:

Three-quarters of the differences among countries, and also among regions, are accounted for by differences in six key variables, each of which digs into a different aspect of life. The six factors are GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations, adjusted for differences in income). Differences in social support, incomes and healthy life expectancy are the three most important factors, with their relative importance depending on the comparison group chosen. International differences in positive and negative emotions (affect) are much less fully explained by these six factors. When affect measures are used as additional elements in the explanation of life evaluations, only positive emotions contribute significantly, appearing to provide an important channel for the effects of both perceived freedom and social support.

To give an idea of the scope of discrepancies between nations when it comes to social capital:

According to the results of the World Values Survey for the 2010-14 wave, 66% of respondents in the Netherlands and 61% in Sweden answered that most people can be trusted, compared with just 35% in the US and 28% in Russia.

And that 35% for the U.S. is looking at the U.S. as a whole. What sorts of deviations in social capital might we find within the U.S., say, between Omaha, NE and… oh, I don’t know… Los Angeles, CA (i.e., the model for the future of America)?

In any event, it would seem that social capital is a hugely important factor for the researchers. But the Report finds the formation of social capital very much a mystery! There’s an 800 pound gorilla standing in front of them, but they can’t see it:

Yet if social capital is so important to well-being, both directly and indirectly, how is high social capital achieved? Can societies invest in social capital in the same way that they invest in human and physical capital? Can we measure the rate of return to investments in social capital, in terms of benefits to SWB and economic performance?

The answer to these questions is that we don’t really know. What we know is that some societies display attributes of high social capital – trust, low corruption, strong social support networks – while others do not. Yet why one society has strong social capital while another does not is a bit of a mystery.

What is a real mystery, however, is how the same study that says the above can also say this elsewhere in the Report:

These debates continue to rage among the social scientists, with no consensus yet in sight. Part of the problem is that the high-trust, high social-capital societies tend to have certain key features in common, and causality is thereby very difficult to determine. The highest social capital region of the world, the three Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) and other Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland), have all of the attributes that researchers have suggested: high civic participation, high ethnic homogeneity, high social and economic equality, and low public corruption. The result is a very high level of social trust not matched almost anywhere else in the world.

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