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  • Writer's pictureOctavio Murekian, PhD

Measuring Happiness by Country: A critique on Consumer Research

Table of Contents

girl jumping on a wooden bridge

1. What is Happiness?

As a definition of happiness, we can say that it is an emotional state that is characterized by emotions of joy, happiness, contentment, and fulfillment.

While happiness can be defined in a variety of ways, it is frequently stated as involving positive emotions and life satisfaction.

People desire happiness, but what constitutes happiness varies from person to person.

Two important aspects of happiness are:

Emotional balance: Everyone has both positive and negative emotions, feelings, and moods.

Happiness is often associated with having more pleasant feelings than bad ones.

Satisfaction in life: Life satisfaction refers to how fulfilled you are with various aspects of your life, such as your relationships, your career, your accomplishments, and other things you value highly.

2. Where does Happiness come from?

Genuine happiness originates from within. It results from making informed decisions, such as deciding to be joyful.

Although it might be simpler for us to think of happiness when things are going well on the outside, this is not the reason for it.

Even when the world around you is not as you would like it to be, you can still be joyful.

When your relationship didn't finish the way you intended it to or when you have a job you despise, you can still be happy.

And even when things don't go according to your meticulously laid out plan, you can still find happiness.

The choice to be happy is one you make for yourself. It results from the thoughts, words, and actions that you choose to think, say, and do.

Even when it doesn't seem like it should be possible, you may choose to be happy.

You don't feel joyful because of the things around you; rather, you switch your attitude, which is what will make you feel happy.

The Subconscious Choice Regarding Happiness

Generally speaking, people make an unconscious decision at some point in their life about what would make them happy.

Most people have something they believe will bring them happiness.

Examples of this are: A superior job? More cash? a relationship? A split up? A getaway?

This belief may have come from your parents or another person in your life, but you eventually came to the conclusion that these things are required for you to feel genuine happiness.

However, as life goes by, you eventually realize that these things aren't making you happy in the way you expected, and as a result, you're left to figure out what to do next in your race to find happiness.

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3. Is Happiness an Emotion?

We generally think of happiness as a state of subjective well-being accompanied by a set of emotions and sentiments.

If you ask anyone if they are happy, they will most likely focus on their current feelings.

For example, a sad individual will recall melancholy, possibly some bad emotions, or the lack of happiness.

And, based on the current circumstances, the majority of people would say they would like to feel better as we tend to be affected by changes in the environment.

4. Measuring Happiness

According to the famed psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, happiness is the sum of brief pleasures, while misery is the sum of temporary sufferings.

However, the writers of the World Happiness Report prefer the longer-term, retrospective perspective because it influences future decisions and because people's responses to questionnaires and polls cannot represent real-time pleasures and sufferings.

Happiness, in reality, is multifaceted; it cannot be quantified on a single scale.

Studies such as the World Happiness Report are valuable as a counterforce to GDP per capita as a measure of well-being.

5. Happiness by Country

a. The Study

Recently trawling across the internet I saw a piece of news on the BBC claiming that Finnish people were the happiest in the world according to a thorough survey.

Skeptical 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 of 157 countries measuring the happiness by country 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.

b. The Analysis

This phenomenon was analyzed 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, the recognition of social values in the measures would allow for 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 of 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 further and argue that it is futile to measure happiness.

Whilst not super happy with the aforementioned 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.

These 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 are understood primarily as a sheltering and highly dependent process from an otherwise hostile environment, respondents 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 risk making a shallow and inaccurate analysis regardless of how sophisticated the methods that we are using are.


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