The Swiss are the happiest people on the planet. That was the conclusion of the most recent UN World Happiness Report. Just weeks ago, however, Gallup released a report suggesting something very different—that the happiest people in the world are Latin Americans. Which one is right? The answer is “both”—it just depends on how you define happiness. If you think happiness is how people see their lives—then the Swiss are the happiest people in the world. If you think happiness is defined by how people live their lives through experiences such as smiling and laughing, enjoyment and feeling treated with respect each day—then the happiest people in the world are Latin Americans. “How people see their lives” is quantified by asking people around the world to evaluate their current lives using a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the worst possible life and 10 being the best possible life. Using this scale, the Swiss and Danes rate their lives the best in the world; people in Togo, Burundi and Afghanistan rate their lives the worst.
Gallup measures “how people live their lives” by asking a series of 10 questions on positive and negative experiences. The five positive experiences include feeling well rested, laughing and smiling, enjoyment, feeling respected and learning or doing something interesting; the five negative experiences include stress, sadness, physical pain, worry and anger. The items are grouped into index scores known as the Positive Experience Index and the Negative Experience Index.
Gallup’s report on International Happiness Day featured the countries reporting the highest scores for the Positive Experience Index.
The Swiss rate their lives highly because of the overall human development in Switzerland, long life expectancy and high incomes— all of which are big drivers of life evaluation. In fact, some research suggests that the more money you make, the higher you rate your life. This also appears to be true globally. Therefore, it is no surprise that residents of some of the richest countries in the world evaluate their lives the best—and the poorest countries, the worst. The Positive Experience Index is different. The richest countries are not always at the top, and the poorest countries are not always at the bottom. For example, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet it is tied for second place on the Positive Experience Index. The main contributors to how someone lives his or her life are very different from the contributors to how someone sees his or her life. For example, money influences how someone sees their life, but not how they live their life. A study looking at income in the U.S. found that beyond $75,000, money has much less of an effect on how you live your life (Positive Experience Index).
This suggests that generally, more money helps you see your life better, but it doesn’t mean you’ll live your life better. Regardless of whether you believe life evaluation or positive emotions should be the metric for happiness, what matters most is figuring out if people’s lives are going well—and if they are, how we can replicate it in other societies. All three metrics—Life Evaluation, Positive Experiences and Negative Experiences—provide important and different information about people’s lives, and all three should be considered when evaluating how people’s lives are going. But most importantly, rather than using only traditional economic indicators to gauge the trajectory of a society, these data are invaluable because they come from the best experts in the world on how people are doing—the people themselves. Jon Clifton is Managing Director of the Gallup World Poll–a Gallup Analytics initiative to scientifically inform leaders and organizations of crucial attitudes and behaviors related to employees, customers, students and citizens, through nationally representative polling in over 140 countries.
Editor’s Note: The primary data used in the UN Happiness Report comes from the Gallup World Poll.