By Anni Myllimäki

Edited by Alexia Cosmatchi

In the 2023 World Happiness Report, Finland was announced as being the happiest country in the world. This wasn’t necessarily a shock, given that Finland topped the list for the sixth time in a row. Amid jokes about which factors of Finnish society contributed to the result – the freeing winters or high alcohol consumption – many posed another question: how exactly is it possible to measure ‘happiness’? Given how abstract the concept is, it is reasonable to wonder about the results. Still, one must first understand the methodology behind the report, to determine its validity. 

Illustration by Malvina Lilieholm

The World Happiness Report is published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations organisation focused on environmental, social, and economic sustainable development. The first report was published on April 1st 2012, to see how happiness was felt around the world, and its possible causes. It continues to be published annually, with surveys carried out in 156 countries. It is based off data gathered by Gallup (a management-consulting firm) in their World Poll, claimed to represent 99% of the global population. The methodology of the World Poll is complex, to be as far-reaching as possible. 

Firstly, the population eligible for being interviewed is civilians that are over 15 years old and non-institutionalized. They are interviewed by phone or face-to-face, depending on the availability of telephones in the country. A questionnaire takes about 30 to 60 minutes to complete, with questions about the economic, political and social conditions of the interviewee. Quality control is completed to ensure responses are representative of the population at large. A typical sampling size for a country is around 1,000 to 3,000 and represents their countries’ populations and their perceived happiness.  

A significant point for the Happiness Report is the ‘Cantril ladder’ question. It asks responders to imagine a ladder with 10 rungs, the highest representing the best possible life and 1 the worst. They then rate their own lives on that scale, so determining a country’s ranking in the report. In addition, six variables are used to explain differences in the poll’s responses: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity and corruption. Finland took the top spot with an average grade of 7,8 out of 10, compared to an average 5,5. 

Once the methodology is understood, one may question its accuracy. The Gallup website claims a 5% margin of error, which is unavoidable when conducting a survey. The margin means that, if the poll is conducted 100 times, 95 of them would accurately represent the population at large. The report does have many positives. For one, it is based off people’s own answers, so the reported happiness is generally what people themselves feel to be accurate. It provides measures to explain regional differences, so while the concept of happiness is quite abstract, its causes can be evaluated more easily. In addition, the report includes recommendations for region-specific policies, meaning the data can be used to aid well-being.  

Still, the report is not without criticism, beginning with the term ‘happiness’ itself. As mentioned, this is a rather abstract concept, meaning people may have different understandings of it. Therefore, the same question asked in every country, regardless of cultural differences, can lead to different results. In Finland, for example, there tends to be a culture where contentment and not drawing attention to yourself are valued. People may feel a pressure to give a good score, as they feel they shouldn’t be complaining, since ‘other people have it much worse’. This can be evidenced in Finland also having the 24th highest rate of depression and 26th highest rate of suicide globally, both highest in the top 10 ‘happiest’ countries in 2023. Essentially, people may not truly be as ‘happy’ as the report claims; they rather feel their lives are good enough that they shouldn’t complain. 

Having understood the methodology and its drawbacks, one can see that the report’s results aren’t as clear as they seem. It is still true that Finland has a generally contented population. This is credited to a relatively equal society with a functioning welfare system and plenty of nature. Still, the depression rate shows the failures of the single question determining happiness. The report is useful as a general show of wellbeing and its potential causes. Adding more questions, adapted to different cultures, could help to get a more accurate view. Then, one could see how happy people tend to be globally, taking into account their own interpretation of the word. 

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