Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Evidence in the World Happiness Report

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

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Established by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the World Happiness Report (WHR) is a publication that investigates civilian happiness, assigning a ‘well-being score’ (on a scale of 0-10) that represents each country’s average national happiness through analysis of global data.[1] Each country is then ranked based on those scores. The data is sourced through surveys conducted by its data partners (most notably Gallup World). It is annually written and published by a group of specialists from varying disciplinary backgrounds.[2]

Methodology[edit | edit source]

The Gallup World Poll questionnaire is posed upon a minimum of 1000 civilians per country and carried out in over 160 countries. From the survey data, WHR aims to evaluate these 6 key variables and how it influences a nation’s well-being score:

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

Reported in the latest publication (2020), the survey was based on the Cantril Ladder — a multi-faceted well-being assessment developed by Dr. Hadley Cantril.[3] It involves asking individuals to “imagine themselves on a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top, where 0 represents the worst possible and 10 the best possible life”.[1] The calculated averages are then displayed as ‘well-being scores’ (of values 0-10) which is assigned to its respective nation.

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.[4]

One of the theories relating to the study of happiness and the conditions necessary to its achievement is the "Freedom of Choice Theory". The theory states that the extent to which a society allows free choice, has a great impact on a person's personal happiness, as long as their basic needs are met.[5] Criteria 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. Such behaviour includes but is 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.[4]

In the WHR and generally in psychology, the most common method used to process evidence of happiness are surveys in which 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.[1]

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[edit | edit source]

Health plays an important part in a person’s happiness, in particular physical health and life expectancy.[9] These are interdependent concepts with medicine as a discipline because it has the knowledge to determine a person’s status of living and provides knowledge which facilitates one’s health.

Physical health plays an essential role in an individual’s happiness due to the biological factors (e.g. hormones released) that have been quantifiably proven to correlate with improved emotions and mental health. 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 that contributes to one’s happiness.

Evidence on life expectancy is taken from the World Health Organisation who defines life expectancy as the ‘average number of years that a new-born could expect to live’.[10] Moreover, if one has a longer life expectancy, the likelihood for the person to be happy also increases. Evidence in life expectancy could be determined through documentation of birth mortality in hospitals and oral accounts provided through census.[11]

Evidence for physical health is primarily based on observation, through simply looking at a person and evaluating his actions. An important factor that determines physical health is the healthcare system because an adequate healthcare system can constantly monitor citizen’s physical health. Hence, if this is attended to, the life expectancy of the person will likely increase, leading to a happier life.

Economics[edit | edit source]

It has long been understood that financial hardship is frequently one of the main factors hindering individual happiness.[12] As such, the WHR uses different econometric measures as one 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 the determination of life satisfaction.[13][14] 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,[15] 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.[16][17][18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Interdisciplinarity[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. In order to garner holistic evidence, experts from different disciplinary fields collaborated including (but not limited to) Psychology, Medicine and Economics specialists. The questionnaire is divided into several sections including those that directly correspond to the aforementioned disciplines, for example:[21][22]

  • 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: ‘do you have confidence in the healthcare or medical systems?’ [22] This concerns the psychological state of the interviewee, whilst their answer will also imply the effectiveness of the healthcare system which is evidence for medicine. This method ensures the happiness indices generated for each country wholly reflects the average national happiness of its population, and that the values are as accurate as can be with the evidence available to them.

Tensions[edit | edit source]

One of the main criticisms directed towards the WHR is that with the attempt of assessing happiness by combining a number of disciplines using vastly differing and overall complex approaches to evidencing, the report fails to properly unify the resulting data. Merging together qualitative as well as quantitative data obtained through a survey into one single numerical result may fail to reflect accurately the actual state of happiness of a country. Moreover, happiness is often seen as an individual concept that is different for each individual. Representing the happiness of an entire country's population by a single number may seem to be vastly generalising and inaccurate.[23]

Conflicts also arise in the sacrifices that must be made to achieve success in one area over another. For example, studies suggest that an individual’s self-imposed over-importance of economic wealth can have negative consequences on both their physical and mental health.[24] Yet, in many countries, people cannot access healthcare without the necessary financial means, even as they enter old age.[25][26] Therefore, it appears that often people sacrifice their health during their working lives so they might continue to have access to healthcare in their retirements.[27]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c 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:
  2. Home | World Happiness Report [Internet]. World Happiness Report. 2012 [cited 5 December 2020]. Available from:
  3. Understanding How Gallup Uses the Cantril Scale [Internet]. Gallup. [cited 5 December 2020]. Available from:
  4. a b Argyle M. The psychology of happiness. 2nd ed. London, England: Routledge; 2013.
  5. Inglehart R. "Cultural Evolution: People's Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World" (2019)
  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. 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. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Hacker J. The great risk shift. InInequality in the 21st Century 2018 May 15 (pp. 260-261). Routledge.
  15. Helliwell JF, Huang H, Wang S, Norton M. Social environments for world happiness. World Happiness Report 2020. 2020.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. Frey BS, Stutzer A. Happiness, economy and institutions. The Economic Journal. 2000 Oct;110(466):918-38.
  19. 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.
  20. Dunn E, Norton M. Happy money: The science of happier spending. Simon and Schuster; 2014 May 20.
  21. Gallup I. World Poll Methodology [Internet]. [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  22. a b The World Poll Questionnaire [Internet]. [cited 10 December 2020]. Available from:
  23. Veenhoven R. National wealth and individual happiness. In: Understanding Economic Behaviour. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands; 1989. p. 9–32.
  24. Harnois G, Gabriel P, World Health Organization. Mental health and work: Impact, issues and good practices.
  25. Papanicolas I, Woskie LR, Jha AK. Health care spending in the United States and other high-income countries. Jama. 2018 Mar 13;319(10):1024-39.
  26. Drechsler D, Jutting J. Different countries, different needs: the role of private health insurance in developing countries. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. 2007 Jun 1;32(3):497-534.
  27. Grafova IB. Your money or your life: Managing health, managing money. Journal of Family and Economic Issues. 2007 Jun 1;28(2):285-303.