A New Wellbeing Rankings Study

A New Wellbeing Rankings Study

 David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Alex Bryson of University College in London have just published a paper at NBER 30759 “Wellbeing Rankings,” which provides some provocative ideas and data on various possible measures of well-being in societies. This reflects dissatisfaction with the tendency to use a single measure, “life satisfaction” on finds in the happiness literature, with ranks of nations widely publicized based on these. Traditionally Nordic nations such as Finland and Denmark come out on top of these.

This study argues one should consider not just a positive measure, but consider negatives that detract from well being as well.  So, drawing Gallup and some other organizations that actually daily track people in many nations, they look at four positive affects: life satisfaction, enjoyment, smiling, and feeling well-rested along with four negative affects: pain, sadness, worry, and anger. Clearly there are major cultural differences across nations regarding some of these, such as smiling, but these are what they go with.

They also consider individual US states as “political units” and throw them into the mix. This leads to one of the larger unanswered question mbekiarks for this study. When they rank entities on their net well beings, US states generally do well, in fact provide 9 out of the top 10 entries, with only Taiwan at 8th not one, and in the top 20, only Austria, the Netherlands, and Iceland manage to get in as well.  But somehow the US as a nation performs much more poorly, at 150th lower than the lowest state, West Virginia at 122. The lack of explanation of this is a serious problem.

There is much not to expect in all this. China is 30th, Denmark 38th, Finland 51st, Russia 87th, UK 111th, US 150th Ukraine 185th. The top 10 are Hawaii, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Taiwan, Alaska, and Wisconsin. The bottom three are Palestine, South Sudan, and Iraq at 215 (Iran is at 205).

Something that happens is that some places do well on the positives but not on the negatives and vice versa. Thus Bhutan is 9th on overall positives, but lots of pain there and it ends up 99th overall.  The top four just on positives are Paraguay, Indonesia, Laos, Hawaii. The top four on negatives (least harm) are Taiwan, Somaliland, Uzbekistan, China, 

So, what is putting China and Taiwan so high on reducing negatives? China is 8th on avoiding pain and 2nd on avoiding sadness. Who is ahead of it on avoiding sadness? Taiwan. Hong Kong is well behind both of them at 79th. 

And Russia? It has traditionally done poorly on positives on these, with mid-range life satisfaction, they are 160th in smiling (which they tend to sneer at publicly doing). But like China it does well on two negatives, coming in at 11th on worrying and 8th on anger. This raises the question of whether correspondents in authoritarian nations are willing to be honest about certain questions.

There is much to chew over this, and I think we shall be hearing more about this study in the future, despite its flaws.

Barkley Rosser