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World Happiness Report 2013: Just how happy are we?

The reception of the second World Happiness Report has made CIFAR Senior Fellow John Helliwell extremely happy. Since its release in September, the report has been downloaded three-quarters of a million times. Even better, governments around the world are taking steps to measure their nations’ happiness and figure out how they can improve it.

EX-8-Happiness-169Helliwell is a co-director of CIFAR’s Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being Program and a UBC professor emeritus. He has been at the forefront of a pioneering effort to use subjective well-being as a gauge of a nation’s progress – one he believes to be more meaningful than traditional economic indicators. He and a team of international researchers have shown that by surveying people on their own assessments of their personal well-being we can better identify significant societal trends.

The first World Happiness Report was released in 2012 and provided baseline information, including the largest-ever presentation of world happiness rankings and an in-depth description of methodology. The second edition explains that as few as six variables make up three-quarters of the variation in the results between different nations or time periods.

According to the report, the six most important indicators of quality of life are real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.

The new report also analyzes changes in happiness from 2005-07 to 2010-12, revealing decline in some regions (for example those hardest hit by the 2007-08 financial crisis); notable gains in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa; and a more equalized distribution of well-being among global regions. Canada’s average life evaluations grew slightly, pulling ahead of Finland while being passed by Switzerland and Sweden, for a net fall from fifth to sixth in the global rankings.

Helliwell says that he is delighted that the report captured the attention of media outlets across the world. But he is most enthusiastic that decision-makers are taking well-being measures seriously, and that national statistics offices are now routinely collecting happiness data.

“After the last report, the OECD produced guidelines on how OECD-reporting countries could measure happiness,” Helliwell said. “The OECD chapter in World Happiness Report 2013 notes that in 2011 only two countries were regularly collecting life satisfaction data: Canada and France. Now the majority of OECD countries are committed to including happiness measurements in the standard data they collect in their major surveys.”

On the heels of the report, Helliwell was invited to Denmark as the dinner speaker for the Danish Business Summit, where the audience and the national media were keen to understand why they continue to top world rankings.

“Policy leaders are looking for examples. Whose education and health policy has it right? What makes neighbourhoods walkable, liveable, generous and trusting? By asking ‘How do they do it in Denmark?’ people are better able to understand what good practice is.”

The WHR 2013 was published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is advocating that happiness measures become embedded in the world’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030. Helliwell and fellow researchers believe that better well-being data, as measured by people’s own evaluations of their lives, will go a long way to help policy-makers better address the issues that matter most to people.

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