The last few years have brought their share of tragic and miserable events: war in Syria, violence across central Africa, floods and tsunamis, and a global financial crisis. The U.S. has been spared major cataclysm, but the news hasn’t been particularly uplifting, given an anemic recovery, growing inequality, and mounting environmental stress—exacerbated by political gridlock. It’s thus not a huge surprise that, according to a new global survey, Americans report themselves a little less happy in the past.
The rest of the world, however, is different: The average surveyed person planet-wide reports greater happiness than 10 years ago—which was happier than many reported 30 years ago. That said, it turns out that the factors that lead people to self-report as happy aren’t as obvious as you might think. And this suggests the limits of using happiness as a guide for making public policy.
Earlier this month, the World Values Survey released its latest round of data on attitudes and opinions from around the planet on issues ranging from the role of women in society through racial attitudes to preferred forms of government, covering surveys from 2010 to 2014. (The group’s website is buggy but fascinating.) One of the very first questions the survey asks is: “Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not at all happy?” For 28 countries that are home to more than 60 percent of the world’s population, the group possesses answers to the same question from about 10 years earlier, taken in a survey round that spanned 1999 to 2004. For 15 nations covering a little under half the world’s population, it has survey data going all the way back to its 1981-1984 round.
The numbers from the World Values Survey suggest overwhelmingly that Americans still report themselves happy, if not quite as much as in the past. The proportion reporting that they are either very happy or rather happy was 91 percent in 1981, climbed to 93 percent in 1999, and fell back to 89 percent in 2011. In some ways, this suggests remarkable resilience in the face of stagnant incomes and an unemployment rate that almost doubled between the second and third surveys. Unemployment and the related uncertainty has a strong relationship with lower reported wellbeing across the rich world.
On the whole, the global average for people living in surveyed countries has risen. Among the global sample whose data goes back to the early 1980s, the proportion saying they are rather happy or very happy climbed from 71 percent to 84 percent. In the larger sample using data from the early 2000s, the global average reporting happiness climbed from 75 percent to 83 percent.
There are unsurprising exceptions: The percentage of Egyptians who reported themselves happy nosedived from 2001 to 2012—from 89 percent to 26 percent—as the country descended into political chaos. But only six of the 28 countries experienced declines, and many emerging economies reported considerably increasing happiness. The proportion of Russians willing to acknowledge being rather happy or very happy climbed from 47 percent to 74 percent over the decade. Respondents in China, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Peru, and Zimbabwe all reported double-digit increases as well. Over the longer period from the early 1980s, only two countries (the U.S. and Australia) registered declines. In the remaining 13 countries, the average person reported being happier over time.
There are lots of good reasons why there should be a general trend toward global happiness, especially in the developing world. Low and middle income economies as a group have experienced a climb in average incomes of 130 percent since 1981. The number of children who die before the age of five has halved worldwide since 1990. Violence appears to be declining, while democracy has been on the rise.
At the same time, the link between greater reported happiness and improvements in health, income or civil rights isn’t as strong as one might expect, even in poor countries. Surveys in Malawi suggest income differences account for perhaps 4 percent of the variation among people in answering happiness polls; that’s not very different to the relationship in the U.S. Brookings Institution researcher Carol Graham surveyed Afghans about their happiness and found that—with the country near the bottom of rankings on most quality-of-life measures—Afghans in 2009 said they were happier than the average respondent in Latin America had reported in 2000.
The World Values Survey presents an additional conundrum: While the share of the world population reporting itself happy has climbed since the 1980s, the average score on a question asking people if they are satisfied with life seems to have declined marginally.
It isn’t clear then why the world as a whole reports greater happiness than ever. Perhaps the answer is a higher quality of life—though it could also be a growing global norm to report you are happy when someone asks. It’s impossible to know for certain how much higher incomes, fewer deaths and greater security are making people more content. But we know from the case of Egypt as well as the impact of unemployment on reported happiness within countries that social, political and economic instability can make people miserable –at least in the short run.
That’s one more reason world leaders should work to reduce the risk of crises from the economic to the environmental going forward. And one other thing we know for sure: Hearing that the world is a happier place tends to bring a smile to everyone’s face.