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The Trouble With Measuring Happiness

Measuring happiness is difficult, and the characterisation of Singaporeans across different reports in this regard has been inconsistent. For instance a Gallup survey in 2012 found that residents in Singapore “are the least likely … to report experiencing emotions of any kind on a daily basis”. The least emotional, in other words. It therefore comes as no surprise that the recent ranking of Singapore as the 24th happiest country out of 158 around the world (ST. Apr 24) – according to the World Happiness Report 2015 published by the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – has been greeted with scepticism. Moreover our fixation over “happiness”, when it is so hard to measure, could even distract us from the broader issues raised by such research studies.

So how is happiness defined? The Gallup study interviewed approximately 1,000 Singaporeans each year between 2009 and 2011, asking whether they experienced positive or negative emotions. “Did you smile or laugh a lot?” was one of the questions. On the other hand the World Happiness Report used six key variables: “real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity”. Two of these six variables were extracted from existing data, while the other four were based on binary responses through a Gallup World Poll.

One could question the accuracy of these four predictors and their corresponding questions:

  • Social support: “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”
  • Freedom to make life choices: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”
  • Generosity: “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?”
  • Perceptions of corruption: “Is corruption widespread throughout the government or not?” and “Is corruption widespread within businesses or no?”
Regressions to explain national average happiness (Image Credit: the World Happiness Report 2015 / Screenshot).

Regressions to explain national average happiness (Image Credit: the World Happiness Report 2015 / Screenshot).

It could be further argued that – notwithstanding these limitations, of yes-no questions for example – these socio-economic indicators do not correlate well with “happiness” in the first place.

The interest with happiness as an indicator for national development can be traced to the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), crafted in response to the use of Gross Domestic Product – an aggregate measurement of national income – to determine standards of living. In this vein researchers generally use two broad methodologies to measure the levels of happiness around the world: surveys with citizens (as it was with the 2012 Gallup survey and a 2013 national workplace survey which found employees to be “Under Happy”), or indices which score countries based on multiple statistics (such as the Happy Planet Index and other country indices, including in Bhutan). The World Happiness Report by the SDSN appears to be a mix of both.

These methods may differ, but ultimately the aim of academic research is to challenge the conventional wisdom of using economic indicators to ascertain the growth of a country. The UN has challenged governments to consider sustainable development, cultural values, conservation, and good governance when assessing process. And Singapore should – beyond arbitrary concerns of whether its citizens are “happy” or “unhappy” – take the lead.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.



  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 27 Apr 2015 | The Singapore Daily - April 27, 2015

  2. Pingback: Throwback: The Trouble With Measuring Happiness | guanyinmiao's musings - February 26, 2016

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