The Happiest of AllOctavio Murekian
By Octavio Murekian
Recently trawling across the internet I saw a piece of news on the BBC claiming that Finnish people where the happiest in the world according to a thorough survey. Sceptical as I am at the thought of accurately measuring a construct as complicated as happiness through quantitative means I thought I would give it a read. It turns out that the World Happiness Report is a study on 157 countries measuring the ‘happiness’ of the inhabitants.
I have read several of these and it seems that usually there is a strong Nordic and Scandinavian presence at the top of the table, this was again the case this year with Finland being crowned the world’s happiest country according to the study. An interesting find however, is that according to their measures, Latin countries tended to be much higher on the list than they should be when taking into consideration their income.
This phenomenon was analysed by Dr. Mariano Rojas, an economist from the University of Puebla in Mexico. His analysis went on to make several points, firstly that the measures are neglecting important aspects of well- being and happiness as seen in latin america. Secondly, a recognition of social values into the measures would allow for a better measurement. One such explanation is the high human relations oriented culture of Latin America.
Unsurprisingly for an economist, and despite arguing for the follies of making a one size fits all measurement to happiness, the argument then delves into values and more mathematics and correlations with happiness, such as Life Evaluation changing the model to be less dependent on income and more on social factors to explain happiness. Another variable, positive affect is then shown through a regression exercise to be higher in latin america than what would be predicted by income. The conclusion was that the variables used for the study have less accuracy in latin america, I however would go one step furhter and argue that it is futile to measure happiness.
Whilst not super happy with the aformentioned explanation, where I believe a lack of thought into culture starts tainting the analysis is when another cultural construct that is mentioned by Dr. Rojas, that I agree helps explain is the importance of nurturing family ties in Latin America, and how close families remain through their lifetime as opposed to other western countries, using several quantitative measures such as time spent nurturing family bonds and time living at home as variables. This variables showed latin countries on one end and scandinavian nordic countries on the other.
This analysis I believe is wrong, and betrays a lack of knowledge of Scandinavian culture. As a Latin American married to a Swede I can attest that family bonds in Sweden are much more ritualized than in latin america, board games and official family meetings are very common (much more so than the more informal ones in latin america) and family bonds just as strong as latin ones.
How parenthood is understood in the culture also has an effect on the results, in latin america where parenthood and childhood is understood primarily as a sheltering and highly dependent process from an otherwise hostile environment, would lead respondents to tend to agree that one should take care of family first, or that making parents proud is the most important.
Conversely in Scandinavia where parenthood is understood as creating ‘independent’ individuals would lead them to respond less, this however would not mean that in fact Scandinavian parents are less preoccupied with their children or families less close, it just means that the values that they hold differ. This renders the values he uses useless as a means of explanation.
Whilst I could go on and tear apart the values he used one by one I believe I have made my point, that the lack of understanding of what the cultural values and representations make the analysis of very complicated constructs such as happiness nearly impossible. It is only through a thorough look at how concepts are understood across different cultures that one may gain actual actionable knowledge. Otherwise we are risk making a shallow and inaccurate analysis regardless of how sophisticated the methods that we are using are.
Octavio Murekian is Toucan Insights’ Co-Founder and Research Director and a PhD Candidate in Consumer Behaviour from the University of London.