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Ranking the happiness of countries and states

Opinion image

Ever since the Sarkozy-Stiglitz Commission promoted the importance of well-being as a measure of progress to complement gross domestic product (GDP), countries have been keen to check their position in the world rankings. A number of rankings exist including the OECD’s Better Life Index, the World Bank’s Human Development Index; but it is those contained in the World Happiness Report, based on the Gallup World Poll (GWP), that generate the greatest interest.  

The survey is unusual in using the same survey instrument and the same survey methodology to gather information on citizens’ well-being across countries around the globe. Until now, those rankings have tended to focus on ranking well-being using life satisfaction and Cantril’s Ladder. But in a new IZA study we revisit the issue combining the GWP data for 2009–2017 for nearly two million individuals in 164 countries with data from the Gallup Daily Tracker (GDT), a survey of two-and-a-half million Americans using the same well-being measures as those in the GWP. This overlap allows us to construct well-being metrics for each of the states in the US, so that we can incorporate them for the first time in the well-being rankings across the world.

We rank the 215 geographical locations (164 countries, 50 US states, and the District of Columbia) using eight measures. Of these, four capture well-being: life satisfaction, enjoyment, being well-rested, and smiling. Four capture ill-being: pain, sadness, worry, and anger. We reverse code the ill-being measures so that together we have eight sets of rankings in which higher numbers indicate worse feelings. We then sum these rankings together where 1 = the happiest place and 215 = the least happy place. This implicitly gives equal weight to each measure of well-being.

The top seven ranked of the 215 geographical locations are US states. Hawaii is first, followed by (in order) Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, with Alaska ninth and Wisconsin tenth. Only one US state ranks outside the top 100—West Virginia (122nd). The lowest ranked country in the world is Iraq, with South Sudan second from last. The Nordic countries that traditionally rank high using life satisfaction measures do not rank as highly with other measures.  

Considering the well-being and ill-being rankings separately, US states do better on well-being than they do when ranked on ill-being. Feeling positively about oneself and one’s life is not simply the mirror image of feeling negatively, and vice versa.

We go on to show these well-being rankings are associated with desirable country characteristics—greater freedom to make life choices, more generosity, lower corruption rates, more social support, and higher incomes. The correlation with income is particularly interesting given the debate about the marginal welfare returns to rising income. Using within-country estimates over time, we see that rising GDP is associated with reductions in negative affect and with increases in positive affect.

What are the lessons of this study? First, country well-being matters, so it’s worth tracking how these rankings change over time. Second, be careful what you rank: well-being and ill-being are not the flip sides of one another. And third, if these rankings are correct, perhaps the US is a better place than many people believe.

© David G. Blanchflower and Alex Bryson 

David Blanchflower is Bruce Rauner Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College and an IZA Research Fellow.
Alex Bryson is Professor of Quantitative Social Science at University College London and a Research Fellow of IZA.

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