Expert Commentary

Insights from happiness studies from around the world

2011 study from the World Bank on the ability of individuals from more than 120 countries to adapt to their economic, political and social situations.

Happiness is universally acknowledged to be a good thing, but how individuals and societies attain it is subject to no small number of variables. In particular, assessments by sociologists and psychologists show little correlation between self-reported levels of happiness and income.

A 2011 study published in the World Bank Research Observer,  “Adaptation Amidst Prosperity and Adversity: Insights from Happiness Studies from around the World,” focuses on the ability of individuals to adapt to their economic, political, and social situations. A number of the studies examined used data from the 2006-2007 Gallup World Poll, which was conducted in more than 120 countries.

The findings of “Adaptation Amidst Prosperity and Adversity” include:

  • As incomes rise, so do expectations, reducing the happiness that the increased prosperity may have brought about. This “paradox of unhappy growth” is present in a broad range of countries, both developed and developing. Consequently, “rising incomes do not translate into ever-increasing levels of happiness.”
  • When incomes fall or remain low, individuals in many societies are able to successfully adjust their expectations. “Remarkably adverse circumstances, such as high levels of crime and corruption or very poor standards of health, do not seem to result in equivalently low levels of happiness.”
  • Life difficulties can be overcome by increases in income, but the amounts required are substantial. The average individual in the United States or the United Kingdom would need to produce an estimated $60,000 in income to overcome the unhappiness resulting from job loss, and $100,000 to overcome divorce.
  • While the correlations between stated satisfaction with different life aspects were all positive with per capita gross domestic product (GDP), but were all negative with economic growth. For example, life satisfaction levels had a 0.788 correlation with GDP but a -0.082 correlation with economic growth.
  • All measures of social connections — both the support that they get from others and the support that they give to others — were significantly and positively correlated with life satisfaction across the countries.

The author concludes that the study improves our understanding of the “psychological and contextual determinants of human well-being across a wide range of development levels,” but “this does not answer the question whether happiness should be a policy objective going forward.” Overall, the findings “suggest that any move in this direction needs to be a cautious one which addresses differences in norms and expectations across societies on the one hand, and the need for a modicum of consensus on the definition of happiness on the other.”

Keywords: metastudy