Is there a happiness contest? | Inquirer Opinion
Social Climate

Is there a happiness contest?

/ 05:02 AM April 13, 2024

Each year, the fourth week of March is when the World Happiness Report (WHR) comes out, timed for the International Day of Happiness, March 20th, which was established by the United Nations in 2012. In 2024, for the seventh consecutive time, Finland ranks Number 1 in the WHR’s happiness-scores, now covering 143 countries. Naturally, the global media are calling Finland “the happiest country in the world, again.”

I remember the excitement in 1952 when Miss Finland, Armi Kuusela, won the first Miss Universe contest, and soon after, lo and behold, got married to Virgilio Hilario, a Filipino. The Miss Universe contest judged Miss Finland the most beautiful of all the contestants, and then Miss Universe herself judged a Filipino as the most appealing of the many suitors who sought her hand. I think 1952 was a very happy year for Finns and Filipinos.

Yet what the WHR’s scoring system simply does is to assemble each people’s evaluation of their present lives along a scale from the possible best (10 points) to the possible worst (zero) that they imagine their own lives could be. Never do the people of one country compare themselves to the people of any other country (see my “Numbers on happiness,” 3/25/23). This involves an 11-point scale with an imaginary top and an imaginary bottom.

Consider, on the other hand, asking people to evaluate their present lives along a scale that ranges from their own personal best (plus-5) to their own personal worst (minus-5), that they remember having experienced themselves? This does not ask people to compare themselves to people of any other country, either. It likewise involves an 11-point scale (with zero as middle point); the difference is that its end-points are what the people remember from their own past. For the Philippines, see “Anamnestic Comparative Self-Assessment (ACSA) at +2.39 in October 2022, a continuing recovery from the record-low +1.97 in May 2021,”, 8/14/23.


I assume that everyone wants to be happy, in some absolute sense. Most likely there are many who want to be happier, soon or eventually, compared to the past. But how many Filipinos are concerned about being happier, compared to other people? How many of us imagine that a happiness contest is going on? What research is there on these matters?

Scaling by numbers versus scaling by words. For me, words are much simpler to interpret. Periodically, Social Weather Stations does a national survey of how many feel Very Happy, Somewhat Happy, Not Very Happy, or Not At All Happy, i.e., asking respondents to choose from only four answers, verbally described rather than numbered (see “First Quarter 2019 Social Weather Survey: 44% of Pinoys are ‘Very Happy’ with Life; 37% are ‘Very Satisfied’ with Life,”, 6/3/19).

I think it is more important to focus on the lower end of the scale, i.e., the proportions of people unhappy and/or dissatisfied with life. These proportions fluctuate over time, in line with poverty and hunger. But they never vanish; sadness has many sources aside from economic.

The 2024 WHR numbers. Here are the new WHR life-evaluation scores and ranks (average 2021-2023) of some countries of interest:


First versus last: Finland 7.74, No. 1; Afghanistan 1.72, No. 143.

Asean: Singapore 6.52, No. 30; Philippines 6.05, No. 53; Vietnam 6.04, No. 54; Thailand 5.98, No. 58; Indonesia 5.57, No. 80; Laos 5.14, No. 94; Myanmar 4.35, No. 118; Cambodia 4.34, No. 119.


Our allies: Australia 7.06, No. 10; United States 6.72, No. 23; Japan 6.06, No. 51; South Korea 6.06, No. 52 (just above the Philippines).

Countries in conflict: Russia 5.78, No. 72; Ukraine 4.87, No. 105. Israel 7.34, No. 5; State of Palestine 4.88, No. 103. China 5.97, No. 60; Taiwan 6.50, No. 31.

Factors affecting the WHR scores. The 2024 WHR cites the following as the most statistically relevant:

Gross domestic product per capita.

Number of years of expected healthy life. Social support: having someone to help you whenever needed (yes or no).

Personal freedom: being satisfied with freedom to choose what to do with life (yes or no).

Personal generosity: donated money to charity in the past month (yes or no).

Pervasiveness of corruption: is it widespread (a) throughout the government, and (b) within businesses (yes or no, two questions).

How relevant are these to the Philippines? More surveys, and more survey analysis, need to be done.


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TAGS: opinion, World Happiness Report

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