- Some regions and countries score more highly on happiness, others on flourishing.
- Globally, composite flourishing has been relatively stable.
- Inequalities in well-being have been increasing.
At the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, we have been assessing how well people are doing and why, both in the United States and globally. To try to understand the factors that shape flourishing, we are launching our Global Flourishing Study, which collects longitudinal data on the same group of individuals over time. However, such longitudinal panel data isn’t as important if one is simply trying to describe, rather than explain.
Gallup’s World Poll has for years been collecting data on various aspects of well-being across more than 160 countries annually. Such data have limits in explaining what shapes well-being, but they can be valuable in describing how various aspects of well-being are distributed across the globe. Gallup’s work and the associated World Happiness Report has focused their well-being efforts on assessing life evaluations—overall single-question assessments of how well people see their life going (sometimes visualized using “Cantril’s ladder).
This work is valuable, and we believe that, as a single-question assessment, it may be about the best one can do. However, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, we also think it is valuable to measure well-being in a more nuanced manner. Patterns with different aspects of well-being, such as happiness versus purpose in life, may have different causes, or different relationships with age, or different effects on health. The Gallup World Poll data set is a rich resource, and, so, in a recent paper, we’ve leveraged it to carry out a more nuanced assessment of different aspects of flourishing around the world.
Flourishing in Gallup World Poll
In many of our own flourishing assessments, we’ve looked at five different domains of human life: (1) happiness and life satisfaction, (2) physical and mental health, (3) meaning and purpose, (4) character and virtue, and (5) close social relationships. Taking two questions in each of these five domains is what makes up our flourishing index, and we also often supplement this with two additional questions on financial and material stability.
Most of the questions in our flourishing index are not collected by the Gallup World Poll, but in our recent work, we took existing Gallup World Poll data and selected three of the questions that roughly correspond to each of the five domains to leverage the extraordinary coverage of the World Poll to get a sense of global flourishing. In some of the domains, such as with happiness and health, the questions selected arguably fit the domain relatively well. In other cases, the fit is somewhat less clear.
For example, our use of the Gallup questions on volunteering, charitable giving, and helping for the “character” domain correspond to actions that might result from one’s character but are not really character, per se. The questions we selected for “purpose” are factors often giving rise to a sense of purpose, rather than meaning or purpose itself. So the mapping between the Gallup questions and our flourishing domains were a fairly crude approximation. Nevertheless, the results of this exercise were quite interesting and we believe provide important insights into flourishing in a global context.
Some Patterns in Flourishing
We analyzed patterns both in the individual flourishing domains and in composite flourishing overall, and we compared and contrasted results to what one observes when using life evaluations alone. Several intriguing patterns emerged:
- While correlations between composite flourishing and life evaluation were relatively high, the two were not identical. Some countries (e.g., Scandinavian countries) scored notably higher on life evaluation, and did well, but not quite as well, on composite flourishing. Other countries (e.g., Indonesia) did not score particularly high on life evaluation, but much better on composite flourishing (e.g., scoring tenth-highest on composite flourishing, but only 89th on life evaluation). New Zealand scored fairly highly on life evaluation (ninth of all countries examined) but came first in composite flourishing.
- Over the approximately 10 years examined (2009–2019), global mean levels of composite flourishing remained roughly constant, but the trends were different across domains. Overall, purpose increased somewhat during this period, but health declined.
- Globally, composite flourishing tended to decline with age, but, for life evaluation, we found the classic U-shaped pattern with life evaluation being higher for younger people and older people (up through about age 80) and lower in middle life. Both of these are in striking contrast to the most recent data in the United States that we reported last month, with both life satisfaction and composite flourishing increasing with age and young people not doing particularly well. This does not seem to be the pattern globally, where only social connection seems to manifest a clear pattern of increasing with age. The most recent U.S. data are post-pandemic, so timing may be partially responsible for these differences, but it is also possible that particular dynamics of the American, or Western, context is driving the differences.
- Different geographic regions had different strengths. As examples, East Asia had the highest scores on health, but notably less so on happiness. Latin America and the Caribbean scored higher on happiness, but lower on character. The European Union reported fairly high scores on social connection, but comparatively lower on purpose. These sorts of results can help guide thinking about where most attention should be given. However, they are simply averages, and the specific domains vary across countries within a particular region.
- Inequalities in well-being tended to be pretty strongly negatively correlated with average well-being scores. This was even more pronounced for composite flourishing than for life evaluations. There were also some notable exceptions (such as the United States and Australia) with relatively high average levels and also relatively high inequality, but globally the patterns were fairly clear. The level of well-being inequality has been increasing over these 10 years, though this was more pronounced with life evaluations (especially in Africa and South Asia) than with composite flourishing.
An understanding of how different aspects of well-being are distributed can guide action to improve well-being. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, activities for flourishing can be promoted to try to increase well-being generally. Various communal pathways to flourishing such as family, education, work, and religious community, can, as we’ve discussed before, also help promote flourishing; and policies that encourage these communal and institutional pathways could go a long way in enhancing population well-being.
Data on which aspects are, or are not, going well within a country could also help guide policy priorities. While the domains of well-being are correlated, it was also clear that certain countries, and even certain geographical regions, had comparatively higher scores in some domains of flourishing than in others. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, the striking patterns with age in the United States with young people not doing very well do not necessarily seem as prominent in non-Western contexts. Policies in the United States should perhaps now focus more on young people; certain other countries perhaps more on health in mid- to late life.
These data also make clearer the relative levels of inequality concerning well-being across countries and regions. Such information might be useful in informing decisions as to whether broad well-being interventions and policies would be the best way forward, or whether more targeted policies, focused on those most in need, might in certain circumstances be preferable. The two are not mutually exclusive, and probably the best approach, in most contexts, would be to employ a combination of both. Along these lines, Catholic social teaching puts forward both the principle of the “preferential option for the poor” (emphasizing the priority of those most in need) and that of solidarity (showing love and promoting the well-being of all).
As noted above, the flourishing assessments we used in this study were relatively crude, trying to map the World Poll’s existing data to the flourishing domains we’ve used in other research. When the first wave of our Global Flourishing Study is available, we’ll have a better sense of which of these patterns persist when using well-being questions more fine-tuned to the various flourishing domains. These results perhaps constitute a “preview” of what may come. On the other hand, the Global Flourishing Study data will only be for 22 countries, rather than 160. Those 22 countries represent about half of the world’s population but, obviously, there are still a lot of countries that will be missed!
For the most comprehensive possible understanding of the distribution and determinants of flourishing, we need to combine insights across data sources, which is what we have tried to do in this most recent study. To understand flourishing well, and to improve it, we need to do a better job of incorporating flourishing assessments throughout various national, local, educational, clinical, workplace, research, and community settings. What we measure shapes what we know, discuss, and aim for, and the policies put in place to achieve those aims. We need better efforts to measure and promote well-being and to enable flourishing globally.
Shiba, K., Cowden, R.G., Gonzalez, N., Lee, M.T., Lomas, T., Lai, A.Y., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2022). Global trends of mean and inequality in multidimensional wellbeing: analysis of 1.2 million individuals from 162 Countries, 2009-2019. Frontiers in Public Health, 10:824960.
Chen, Y., Cowden, R.G., Fulks, J., Plake, J.K., and VanderWeele, T.J. National data on age gradients in wellbeing among U.S. adults. JAMA Psychiatry, in press. Published online August 24, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.2473
How to Measure Well-Being. Psychology Today. Human Flourishing Blog. June 2021.
Beyond Happiness. Psychology Today. Human Flourishing Blog. February 2022.
The Global Flourishing Study. Psychology Today. November 2021.
VanderWeele, T.J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 31:8148-8156.
Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Millstein, R., von Hippel, C., Howe, R., Tomasso, L. P., Wagner, G., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2019). Psychological well-being as part of the public health debate? Insight into dimensions, interventions, and policy. BMC Public Health, 15;9(12):e033697.