Reading a Gallup Poll about the happiest countries on earth, I couldn’t help being surprised by the fact that nine out of the 10 happiest countries — led by Paraguay — turned out to be in Latin America.
According to Gallup’s Positive Emotions Index, one of several such worldwide studies that aim to measure people’s levels of happiness, Paraguay was for the third year in a row the country in which people said they experienced the most positive emotions.
The poll asked people in 138 countries whether they experienced positive emotions — such as lots of enjoyment, laughter, smiling a lot, feeling well rested, and being treated with respect — on the previous day.
In Paraguay, 87 percent of respondents reported having positive experiences on the previous day, followed by Panama (86 percent), Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador (all 83 percent), Costa Rica, Colombia and Denmark (82 percent), Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador (81 percent).
Further down the list are the United States, Sweden, Argentina, Chile and several other countries with 78 percent of the people reporting positive emotions, and Mexico, China and France with 76 percent. At the bottom of the list is Syria, with 36 percent.
Other studies, such as the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, asked questions that placed a greater emphasis on people’s well-being, and came to different conclusions. The World Happiness Report identifies the countries with the highest levels of happiness as Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden.
So which of these studies should we believe? It turns out that it depends on whether you measure positive emotions, or well-being, Gallup pollsters say. Positive emotions mostly reflect a mood, while well-being mostly reflects a general satisfaction with one’s standard of living, they say.
A few days ago, I had a chance to interview Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, one of the world’s foremost experts in behavioral economics, and to ask him extensively about these rankings of the world’s happiest countries.
Kahneman, 80, an Israeli-American psychologist and professor emeritus at Princeton University who wrote the best-selling book Thinking, fast and slow, is one of the few non-economists ever to win a Nobel in economics. He was not surprised at all by the results of Gallup’s Positive Emotions Index.
Kahneman told me that Latin Americans “are more emotional, not necessarily happier.” He added, “When you look at how Latin Americans answer questions about how unhappy they are, you sometimes find that they are unhappier than other people. So they are (both) happier than other people, and unhappier than other people.
“The point I’m making with Latin Americans is that they maybe express emotions more than other cultures, so that would be true both for good emotions and for less good emotions.”
According to Kahneman, money buys happiness, but only to a point. His studies have found that, in the United States, income only makes a significant impact on people’s positive emotions when they make more than $75,000 a year. After that threshold, there is not much of a difference in how happy people feel.
“Money does not buy experiential happiness, but lack of money buys you misery. It’s not so much that being rich is good, but that being poor can be very bad,” he told me.
But what I found most interesting of what Kahneman said about these happiness polls is that they are focusing on the wrong question.
“I don’t think that it’s so important to measure how happy people are. People keep talking about measuring happiness and well-being, but what is really important is measuring misery,” Kahneman said. “It is much more important for a society to reduce the misery of its population.”
My opinion: I fully agree. The rankings for world happiness are not only very subjective, but can lead to an illusion of happiness that leads to complacency, and to a false sense of achievement. If Gallup’s Positive Emotions Index had added a question asking Paraguayans whether they are satisfied with their standard of living, or the public services they receive, or if they are as happy as the Scandinavians, the results might have been different.
The bottom line is that, as Kahneman said, rather than ask questions about happiness, we should ask questions about misery — and do something about it.
Email Mr. Oppenheimer at email@example.com.