Retired prof tracking world happiness levels for United Nations

How do you know if a nation is happy? According to economics Professor Emiritus John Helliwell, you just ask.

Helliwell, who has spent many years researching happiness and well-being levels of people around the world, is currently working on the 2015 United Nations World Happiness Report. On April 24, he will present the findings of his report to the UN.

“The absolute central part of the world happiness report … is that, in fact, we are collecting and responding to people’s own judgments about the quality of their lives,” said Helliwell.

A yearly report that measured world happiness came from a 2011 UN resolution. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental global goal and instructed participating countries to measure the happiness levels of their people.

Helliwell has been involved with both of the reports that have been produced since that time.

“What the world happiness report does that other reports don’t is applying this and its lessons at the global level using comparable, national data,” said Helliwell.

Helliwell and his UN colleagues measure happiness through specific questions. While key factors such as GDP are used to explain the distribution of happiness around the world, citizens’ own life assessments form the core of the data.

The Cantril Ladder is also a means of assessing happiness by asking individuals to imagine their lives as a ladder. Respondents evaluate their lives on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being the worst possible life and 10 being the best possible life.

“The measures that everyone pays attention to, and rightly so, are simply the average answers to the Cantril ladder,” said Helliwell.

Emotional states are included in these subjective well-being measurements, with surveys asking questions regarding individuals’ emotional experiences the day before such as 'did you laugh a lot yesterday?'

“If you’re measuring pain, you ask someone do they feel pain and that’s the only thing that matters," said Helliwell. "We would say the same thing about happiness, it’s inherently subjective."

The Happiness Report relies heavily on the Gallup World Poll. Gallup provides the sampling of respondents who answer questions on subjective well-being, with a typical sample size being 3,000 people in each country over the course of three years.

The next step is figuring out how to apply these findings to improve people's happiness levels. According to Helliwell, that is the part of the process that needs to be studied more.

“You’re building up a lot of experience once you get the data, then you have to learn more about [what] they mean," said Helliwell. "Nonetheless, there are clearly a lot of lessons that have been learned from the science of well-being."