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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Map your happiness

Have you seen this world map measuring happiness?

The academic term is subjective well-being (SWB), but that's essentially an analytical euphemism for happiness. Adrian G. White of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom has developed a visual depiction of the world that is color-coded by overall level of happiness, as measured in individual nations.

Some of the findings aren't surprising. The United States and most industrialized nations rank high on the SWB index (indicated in deep red on the map). Poor and undeveloped countries, including Russia and most of the former Soviet republics, generally rank low (yellow on the map). There are no yellow countries and only one orange-yellow nation in all of the Western Hemisphere (French Guiana). There isn't a single country in Africa that is red or light red. Reviewing the map, I couldn't help but think of the U2 song, "Crumbs From Your Table:"

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die
Unfortunately, in too many places in the world, that is exactly what it does. According to White, SWB generally correlates to health, wealth and basic education access. It would be easy to conclude that money buys happiness after looking at the map, and there is a case to be made to a degree. I wonder, though, if something is else more predictive of happiness, something that is frequently associated with good health, good income and good education: the resources and the ability to change your circumstances.

Does SWB boil down to a personal sense of empowerment? Consider that Mongolia, a poor nation in a remote location, is red. Then again, so is Saudi Arabia, and even Iran is orange. Albania and Bulgaria, former authoritarian Communist Bloc countries that continue to struggle economically, are yellow. Perhaps personal empowerment combined with political stability are prerequisites for happiness.

Progressive and (relatively) pacifist countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Canada rank highest on the list, all of them above the United States. Yes, they've benefited greatly from military strength of the U.S. and Western Europe, but should they also be telling us something? If so, my guess is that we should lighten up on worrying so much about moral issues and focus on making sure as many people as possible have enough to eat, access to sound medical care and the ability to read. Here's hoping this map someday looks like a giant tomato. [Image: University of Leicester]


Mr. Mack said...

Ezra Klein (formerly of Pandagon) did a piece about this not long ago. It amazes me how many of our self-appointed moral police seem fundamentally unhappy themselves. I really feel that most of them want us to share their particular misery. Anyway, i join you in your hopes to see a bright red world map, and thanks for this post.

Rob Robinson said...

Maybe it's true that misery does love company, Mack. That would explain a lot!