Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Evidence in Happiness (11)

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Evidence in The World Happiness Report[edit | edit source]

Established by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the World Happiness Report (WHR) is an annual publication, written by experts in various fields, that utilises data primarily provided by Gallup to rank and assess national happiness levels of over 150 countries.[1][2]

Methodology[edit | edit source]

Ranking of Happiness 2017-2019 - Top 20 Countries[3]

The Gallup World Poll is a survey completed by at least 1000 citizens per country. Its results are used to generate indices that cover various social, economic, and political topics, such as Life Evaluation, Personal Health, and Personal Economy.

The Cantril Ladder scale forms the basis of the Life Evaluation index. It asks participants to place themselves on an imaginary "ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top" where "the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for [them] and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for [them]".[4] The calculated national averages (0-10) are the values used in the WHR's 'Ranking of Happiness'.[2]

Using the World Poll indices and additional supplementary data, the WHR evaluates how these 6 key factors affect a nation’s well-being:[2]

  • GDP per capita;
  • social support;
  • healthy life expectancy;
  • freedom to make life choices;
  • generosity;
  • perceptions of corruption.

Disciplinary Evidence[edit | edit source]

Psychology[edit | edit source]

In Psychology, the study of the concept of Happiness is mainly conducted through the construction of various theories, while the evidence of happiness itself is generally based on behaviour assessments and surveys.[5] Criteria often studied in Psychology, such as "generosity" and "freedom of making life choices", play an important part in the assessment of happiness in the WHR.

In some instances, to be able to assess the actual level of happiness in individuals, psychologists collect data on their physical behaviour and then construct statistics based on said data. These behaviours include but are not limited to: laughing, smiling and helping others.[6] However, despite the presence of the aforementioned quantitative methods, it is mainly qualitative ones that are used by psychologists in the construction of the report.[5]

In the WHR and generally in psychology, the most common method used to process evidence of happiness are surveys where individuals are asked several questions assessing circumstances that may relate to their level of happiness, or are straightforwardly asked to rate their happiness on a scale from 0 to 10.[2]

This surveying method is often criticised for being too subjective, as the perception of happiness varies from one individual to another and is disproportionately influenced by the most recent events in their lives.[7][8]

Medicine and Health Sciences[edit | edit source]

Health (in particular physical health) and life expectancy play an important part in the assessment of a person’s happiness;[9] these are medical concepts which allow the determination of a person’s quality of life and overall corporal well-being.

Physical health plays an essential role in an individual’s happiness due to biological factors (e.g. hormones released) that have been quantifiably proven to correlate with improved emotions and mental health.[9] Life expectancy is linked to physical health, for when one has poor physical health, life expectancy is shortened. Therefore, the WHR considers life expectancy and physical health as evidence of the level of one’s happiness.

Evidence on life expectancy is taken from the World Health Organisation, which defines life expectancy as the ‘average number of years that a new-born could expect to live’.[10] If one has a longer life expectancy, the likelihood for the person to be happy increases. Evidence in life expectancy incorporates both quantitative and qualitative elements such as documentation of birth mortality in hospitals and oral accounts provided through census.[11] Similarly, evidence in physical health combines both qualitative and quantitative methods.[12][13] The clinician's experience, patient's preferences and existing medical knowledge are all considered in evidence-based medicine, which facilitates the assessment of one's physical health.[14]

Another important factor that is reflected through physical health and life expectancy is the country's healthcare system. For example, a poor healthcare system affects one's corporal well-being, limiting their experience of true happiness.

Economics[edit | edit source]

Traditionally, financial hardship is one of the main factors hindering individual happiness.[15] As such, the WHR uses different econometric measures as a means of evaluating the relative causes of nations’ measured happiness and the differences between nations. The WHR recognises that income security in the event of involuntary unemployment is pivotal in determining life satisfaction.[16][17] The most commonly used metric is GDP per capita — a measure of a country's economic output per person. The data shows that many of the countries with significantly lower GDP per capita tend to feature lower on the Happiness Rankings[3], indicating that analysing the evidence in personal economics and individuals’ incomes is critical to evaluating subjective well-being.

However, most studies do show that once basic human needs are met, additional income does not have a strong correlation with increased well-being.[18][19][20] In fact, one of the main criticisms of using econometrics in quantifying happiness is that too much value is placed on personal income and GDP per capita. Most recent studies show that income inequality and financial security have a much stronger correlation with subjective well-being.[21] Beyond this, most evidence suggests that it is not how much money we have, but rather how we choose to spend it, which impacts our happiness and well-being.[22]

Interdisciplinary Interactions[edit | edit source]

The WHR relies on data from the Gallup World Poll, which is composed of over 100 core questions that cover the different aspects affecting one’s happiness. To garner holistic evidence, experts from different disciplinary fields including (but not limited to) Psychology, Medicine and Economics, work collaboratively. The questionnaire is divided into several sections, including those that directly correspond to the aforementioned disciplines. Examples of the different questions would be:[23][24]

  • Psychology: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?"
  • Medicine: "Are you satisfied with or dissatisfied with the availability of quality healthcare?"
  • Economics: "How would you rate economic conditions in this country today — as excellent, good, only, fair or poor?"

In fact, some of the questions apply an interdisciplinary angle, for example, the question "Do you have confidence in the healthcare or medical systems?",[24] concerns the psychological state of the interviewee, whilst their answer will also imply the effectiveness of healthcare systems, which is also evidence of medical infrastructures. This method ensures that the happiness indices generated for each country reflect the average national happiness of its population.

Tensions[edit | edit source]

One of the main criticisms directed towards the WHR is that with the attempt of assessing happiness by combining various disciplines using vastly differing and overall complex approaches to evidencing, the report fails to properly unify the resulting data.

For example, if we take the psychological method of happiness assessment, which is a survey involving subjective answers that are influenced by differing factors, and attempt to combine it with the objective GDP value used in economics, the resulting data accuracy may inevitably falter. Moreover, happiness is often seen as an individual concept — an experience that varies from person-to-person. Therefore, merging together qualitative and quantitative data into a single numerical result may fail to truly reflect the state of happiness in a country.[25]

These various elements in interdisciplinary evidence must thus be accounted for when determining an individual's real happiness level.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Home | World Happiness Report [Internet]. World Happiness Report. 2012 [cited 5 December 2020]. Available from:
  2. a b c d De Neve J, D. Sachs J, Layard R, F. Helliwell J. World Happiness Report 2020 [Internet]. 8th ed. Sustainable Development Solutions Network; 2020 [cited 5 December 2020]. Available from:
  3. a b Helliwell JF, Huang H, Wang S, Norton M. Social environments for world happiness. World Happiness Report 2020. 2020.
  4. Understanding How Gallup Uses the Cantril Scale [Internet]. Gallup. [cited 5 December 2020]. Available from:
  5. a b Argyle M. The psychology of happiness. 2nd ed. London, England: Routledge; 2013.
  6. Norrish J, Vella-Brodrick DA. Is the study of happiness a worthy scientific pursuit? Social Indicators Research. 2008;87:393 - 407.
  7. Gamble, A., Gärling, T. The Relationships Between Life Satisfaction, Happiness, and Current Mood. J Happiness Stud 13, 31–45 (2012).
  8. Tourangeau R, Rasinski KA, Bradburn N. Measuring happiness in surveys: A test of the subtraction hypothesis. Public Opin Q. 1991;55(2):255.
  9. a b Khanahmadi M, Dfarhud D, Malmir M. Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article [Internet]. PubMed Central (PMC). 2014 [cited 9 December 2020]. Available from:
  10. Life expectancy at birth (years) [Internet]. 2020 [cited 4 December 2020]. Available from:
  11. Hill K, Stanton C, Gupta N. Measuring Maternal Mortality from a Census: Guidelines for Potential Users [Internet]. 2001 [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  12. Oh E. Synthesizing Quantitative Evidence for Evidence-based Nursing: Systematic Review. Asian Nursing Research. 2016;10(2):89-93.
  13. Donnon T. Quantitative research methods in medical education. Oxford Textbook of Medical Education. 2013;:626-637.
  14. Guyatt G. Evidence-Based Medicine. JAMA. 1992;268(17):2420-2425.
  15. Butterworth P, Rodgers B, Windsor TD. Financial hardship, socio-economic position and depression: results from the PATH Through Life Survey. Social science & medicine. 2009 Jul 1;69(2):229-37.
  16. Martela F, Greve B, Rothstein B, Saari J. The nordic exceptionalism: what explains why the nordic countries are constantly among the happiest in the world. Teoksessa: World Happiness Report. 2020:129-46.
  17. Hacker J. The great risk shift. InInequality in the 21st Century 2018 May 15 (pp. 260-261). Routledge.
  18. Aknin LB, Norton MI, Dunn EW. From wealth to well-being? Money matters, but less than people think. The Journal of positive psychology. 2009 Nov 1;4(6):523-7.
  19. Ed D, Biswas-Diener R. Will money increase subjective well-being? A literature review and guide to needed research. Social Indicators Research. 2002;57:119-69.
  20. Frey BS, Stutzer A. Happiness, economy and institutions. The Economic Journal. 2000 Oct;110(466):918-38.
  21. Muresan GM, Ciumas C, Achim MV. Can money buy happiness? Evidence for European Countries. Applied Research in Quality of Life. 2019 Feb 19:1-8.
  22. Dunn E, Norton M. Happy money: The science of happier spending. Simon and Schuster; 2014 May 20.
  23. Gallup I. World Poll Methodology [Internet]. [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  24. a b The World Poll Questionnaire [Internet]. [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  25. Veenhoven R. National wealth and individual happiness. In: Understanding Economic Behaviour. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands; 1989. p. 9–32.