Life Satisfaction and the Well-Being Gap

As income inequality rises, the well-being gap in most countries widens.

Posted Apr 10, 2016

Max Fisher/Washington Post
Source: Max Fisher/Washington Post

“Our data show what needs to be done to improve the level and distribution of happiness” globally, the authors of World Happiness Report 2016 argue ambitiously in their latest assessment across nations and continents. “Increasingly, happiness is considered to be the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.”

With Ministries of Happiness springing up in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bhutan, and the United Arab Emirates (sometimes to mockery, as protesters in Venezuela indicated they would prefer a functioning Ministry of Justice), measures of happiness increasingly are being used to assess individual and social well-being, in ways that appear more comprehensive and on-the-ground than are separate assessments of income, health, education, good government, and social context. At the same time, inequality between countries has sharply increased over the past 200 years; according to the Guardian newspaper, global inequality is now “worse than at any time since the 19th century.” Hence perhaps the mockery—the impression that a Ministry of Happiness might be more Orwellian than practical or useful. Oxfam’s latest figures show that the wealthiest “1% now have more wealth than the rest of the world’s population combined.”

To that end, it is notable that the latest World Happiness Report tested within and across societies for “inequalities of well-being”—a new category aimed at establishing a finer metric for happiness socially and individually. Roughly 3,000 respondents in each of more than 150 countries were asked to respond to a question asking them to evaluate their current lives on a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10, the best possible.

First by this measure was Denmark, with an average answer of 7.526, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Finland. The lowest-scoring five were Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria, and Burundi, the latter ranking lowest with an average answer of 2.905. The United States came in 13th, with an average answer of 7.104.

With a focus on social injustice and necessary reforms, the report determined, somewhat unsurprisingly, that there is widespread variation among countries and regions regarding inequalities of well-being. Contrasting changes in inequality between 2005 and 2015, the report found that “in eight of the 10 global regions, and in more than half of the countries surveyed, there was a significant increase in the inequality of happiness.”

There is “preliminary evidence,” the authors concluded, “that countries with more equal distributions of well-being have higher average life evaluations.” Additionally, sustainable development at the social and environmental level “is conducive to happiness.” As I say, not too surprising, though the focus on reform aims to combine the emerging science of well-being with social policies geared to reducing inequalities in wealth and well-being. The idea is to support and, ideally, to help implement a “growing policy interest at all levels of government to enable people to live sustainably happier lives.”  Follow me on Twitter @christophlane