Statistics: If you’re happy and you know it...

the boston globe

When the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan began measuring “gross national happiness” in the 1970s, the concept seemed kooky — the kind of thing only a king with no election coming up could get away with. Yet, improbably, the idea of measuring something as subjective as personal happiness and using it to guide policy is catching on.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is usually more concerned with interest rates and wheat production, has released a ranking of industrialized nations by personal contentment, based on factors including safety, social ties, and time devoted to leisure. The United States comes in a respectable third. Australia is happiest, followed by Norway.

The point isn’t that everyone should buy Vegemite or take up whaling. Instead, the rankings provide an entry to an alternate statistical universe. Do all those financial, educational, or industrial accomplishments actually translate into happier people? What does it mean that Germany, with its ironclad credit rating, comes in 17th, only a few places ahead of Greece?


The OECD ranking is by its nature highly subjective; the organization even added an interactive tool to its website allowing visitors to re-sort the happiness ranking based on their own priorities. But the rankings offer encouragement to the idea that social well-being can be measured, and should be a legitimate goal of government.