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Quantifying happiness: what does it take to be happy?

When you think about being happy, you probably imagine spending time with friends and family ­– not statistical analyses and government reports.

Yet weighing in at 172 pages, this year’s United Nations World Happiness Report is the most comprehensive glimpse of global happiness ever produced. In case you’re wondering, Australia’s the ninth happiest country on Earth for the second year running, up from 10th place in 2015.

Why measure happiness?

We’re used to measuring national output in economic terms, like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP captures the productive capacity of a country, and it’s a useful measure because it can be applied uniformly across different nations to compare them.

On the other hand, isn’t happiness a subjective, fleeting emotion that’s impossible to record?

Well, no.

‘Just because something is subjective it doesn’t mean it can’t be quantified,’ says Dr Melissa Weinberg, Honorary Fellow at Deakin University’s School of Psychology and a member of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life.

Happiness, or ‘subjective wellbeing’ as it’s known to scientists, has been researched and measured for years, for a pretty obvious reason. ‘Ask any parent what they want for their child or for their loved ones, and they’ll say “I just want them to be happy”,’ Dr Weinberg says. ‘Happiness, or the pursuit of happiness, is a fundamental human force that motivates behaviour.’

We could measure a whole range of important things, GDP included, but does any of it matter if people aren’t happy?

'Just because something is subjective it doesn't mean it can't be quantified.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

Happiness in Australia

The World Happiness Report measures happiness in each country using six main indicators: GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption. From this mix of factors, an overall numerical score is generated that allows countries to be ranked against each other.

Australia’s been measuring its own happiness levels since 2001, and researchers at Deakin University were involved in the development of one of the most heavily-researched wellbeing measures used globally.

‘It’s called the Personal Wellbeing Index,’ Dr Weinberg says, ‘and it’s been translated into over 20 different languages with data available from countries all over the world.’ Dr Weinberg says this means we have a very good understanding of what makes Australians happy.

Not all groups of Australians are equally happy, and it’s no surprise to learn the subgroups who report the least personal wellbeing include the unemployed, people living alone, unpaid carers and those earning less than $15,000 per year.

On the flipside, subgroups that consistently report above-average wellbeing include Australians aged 75 or older and people who live with their partners.

Lifting our game

Coming ninth out of the 155 countries measured isn’t bad at all, but we haven’t moved much since the first global report five years ago.

There’s a well-understood relationship between wellbeing and income that shows more money does equal more happiness, but only up to a certain point. After that, the law of diminishing returns comes into effect with a vengeance; an extra $10,000 a year makes all the difference to a family on the poverty line, but a millionaire might barely notice. As we’re already a wealthy nation, more money can’t push Australia’s average happiness much higher.

Dr Weinberg suggests the trick to improving our rank is in that word ‘average’. ‘If we can identify those subgroups of the population who are most in need’ – that is, subgroups like unpaid carers that pull Australia’s average happiness score down – ‘and target interventions to improve their happiness, we’ll be able to work towards improving our overall ranking by reducing happiness inequality.’

That makes the happiness index more than a measuring stick: it’s a tool that policymakers can use to improve Australians’ lives. And if going up the global rankings is a happy side effect of that, what’s not to smile about?

Top 10 happiest countries

  1. Norway
  2. Denmark
  3. Iceland
  4. Switzerland
  5. Finland
  6. Netherlands
  7. Canada
  8. New Zealand
  9. Australia
  10. Sweden

Interested in learning more about what improves the wellbeing of communities or countries? Learn about public health and health promotion at Deakin.

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology
Deakin University

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