Happiness

Another day, another misguided graph on happiness research. This time Fast Company (tech populations are ground zero for happiness research for some reason) puts up the graph above. Which seems interesting, right?

Except that in the article we find this:

Some countries are significantly happier than others (happiness is, of course, subjective). Indonesia, India Mexico, and Brazil lead the pack in happiness, while Russia, South Korea, and Hungary are all pretty miserable (see the chart). There are other factors as well: People who are under 25 are most likely to say they’re “very happy”; Latin American countries as a whole have the most “very happy” people; and people with high income and extensive education are also most likely to report being “very happy.”

I got interested in how much the age question figures in, because just glancing at the big graphic I could see it looked almost identical to what these nations would look like if ranked by median age.

Turns out it probably figures in a lot. Here are the top five “happy” nations and their median age (from WolframAlpha):

Indonesia: 27.6 yr
India: 25.3 yr
Mexico: 26.3 yr
Brazil: 28.6 yr
Turkey: 27.7 yr

Here are the bottom five:

Italy: 43.3 yr
Spain: 41.1 yr
Russia: 38.4 yr
South Korea: 37.3 yr
Hungary: 39.4 yr

So, in other words, most of what we are seeing in the above graph may be attributable to age — not country at all. Young people say they are happier, countries with a lot of young people will therefore have higher reported happiness, which tell us… well, nothing except those countries are young demographically.

Is it the whole story? Well, probably not. But I have no idea why you wouldn’t control for median age in a graph like the one above.

I’ll also add that I think the sociolinguistics of “happy” are pretty difficult. Young people value happiness (and respond to polls accordingly). Older people, especially those with children, often see happiness as too thin a word for what governs their life — life is partially about sacrifice, a parent hitting a 5-point bubble on a Likert scale may see that as an indication of selfishness (rightly or wrongly). So even with the age difference, I’m not sure what happiness research is really getting at.

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