The ‘World Happiness Report 2023’, by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), ranks countries based on their ‘happiness’ level and has gained popularity, though not for the right reasons. There are immense methodological flaws that have resulted in measurement biases and, eventually, in the happiness rankings of nations. This is quite a fallacy that the developed world represented by the Occident emerges as the happiest, while Bhutan, the only country in the world that looks at every policy intervention through its parameters of Gross National Happiness, is missing from the ranks.

It reinforces the thinking that the global North only intends to look at the world from its perspectives, and doesn’t bother to understand what lies beyond their landmasses. So, naturally, their definition of ‘happiness’ differs from those of Bhutan and the global south. These have resulted in biases from various sources, from cultural to statistical methodology.

The concept of happiness is often defined in a way that reflects Western culture, leading to cultural bias and making it less applicable to underdeveloped and developing economies. Questions like, “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?” may not necessarily be applicable across all cultural settings. Even within a culturally heterogeneous nation like India, happiness manifests in divergent forms. Unfortunately, the survey questions in the report fail to accommodate this diversity. In his “stages of progress” approach, Anirudh Krishna of Duke University has shown how development and poverty are culturally construed. The same should apply to ‘Happiness’.

The report relies on self-reported data, which can be subject to biases and inaccuracies. The possibility of response bias looms large in the case of open-ended questions. This has precisely been the case in many portions of this report. Questions like, “Did you experience the following feelings during A Lot Of The Day Yesterday? How about Enjoyment?”, will lead to vague responses that will be highly subjective and contingent upon varying socio-cultural settings of respondents, thereby leading to incomparable index scores.

The entire analysis comes up with conclusions based on a relatively small sample size, representing that for a large-sized and diverse nation like India, a representative sample should possess the necessary stratification and statistical randomness to emerge with essential conclusions. However, this is clearly missing in this analysis.

Aspiration as ‘unhappiness’

Another issue with this report is that it erroneously interprets aspirations as “unhappiness”, even though developing countries have every right to be ambitious and should not be labelled unhappy. Meanwhile, there is a growing interest in de-growth as a philosophy in certain parts of Europe, which involves moving away from the current development trajectory. However, whether this should be viewed as dissatisfaction or over-satiation is unclear.

Finally, the concern with the report pertains to the handling of missing data, which can be problematic for imputing missing values using predictions from regression models and assuming that the relationships between factors are consistent across all countries, which is mostly inaccurate. Again, extrapolating time series data to impute missing values assumes that trends will continue as they have, which may not hold in the future.

Now comes the issue of comparability over the years due to changes in the methodology in 2023. In contrast to the 2020 edition, the 2023 report incorporates a new variable that pertains to Institutional Trust. While it is a generic practice to improve the methods, one needs to consider that movements of ranks can also be due to inconsistent methodology over time.

Isn’t the time ripe for the global South led by large emerging nations like India, and also those who pioneered the process of happiness measurement like Bhutan, to choose their own parameters and for once delineate happiness through the lens of the global South, and rank the world economies?

Ghosh is Director, and Bhowmick is Associate Fellow, at the Observer Research Foundation