Are Africans Poor but Happy? Questioning the Happiness Rankings

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In rich countries, there is a prevailing belief that people in Africa are poor but happy. Such images are time and again confirmed by popular reality shows on Weste media in which celebrities like Madonna visit little-known tribes in the most remote villages in rural Africa, only to find that despite all their hardship, people they visited seems happier than an average American sitting on an armchair sipping copious amounts of coffee. Whilst it is important not to read too much into tweets by Madonna and 50 Cent, it is perhaps useful to examine whether Africans are poor and happy, or happily poor.

Every year, the World Happiness Index surveys numerous people from various countries around the world in search of, as the name implies, which country has the happiest population. This year’s winner is Denmark, and the happiest country in Africa is Algeria. Other countries in the top ten, in the continent, include Tunisia, Somalia, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia, Ethiopia, and South Africa.

According to the Index’s website, the process is a very simple one. In short, the researchers straight-up asked people to rank their own happiness. These answers are then weighted based on six other factors: levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption. Then, the results are compared to Dystopia, an imaginary place the team created where everyone is miserable. This fictional, sad realm allows all of the countries to remain positive in the six factors listed above. In other words, Dystopia is a benchmark that every country passes to make a better graph. Whilst the methodology was put together by a group of experts to be revered, I find the findings suspect and at times misleading.

Firstly, there is the astonishing correlation between wealth and happiness. Not only are the top three – Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland – among the world’s richest countries, but every single one of the top 10 are part of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, basically a club of rich countries. At the same time, the bottom countries are overwhelmingly poor. The bottom ten with the exception of Syria and Afghanistan, which are both depleted by war, are part of a clear trend: they are sub-Saharan African countries and are poor. In fact, most countries in the bottom 25 are in sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region. More money does seem to equal more happiness (there is an exception here as countries like Somalia and Zambia rank amongst the poorest but also happen to be happy, I guess one can say they are happily poor). This trend is also marked among the Arab countries. The happiest Arab countries, are, coincidentally, also the richest. While the bottom Arab countries are among the poorest and those at war.

And then we come to the problem of definition. What exactly is happiness? Happiness seems different to contentedness and different again to fulfilment. How to measure the differences? The survey information the UN uses is a mixture of several polls, giving data across 157 countries. But the questions are broadly the same, in that respondents were asked to self-report their levels of happiness, both in the moment (day to day) and generally. A typical question was: “How happy are you with your life these days?”

If the definition of the question is tricky, giving the right answer is equally so. Most of us don’t know what makes us happy in the long-term (which is why we eat red meat and smoke Shisha excessively, even when we know these things will harm us), but equally we don’t know what makes us happy in the moment. For instance, having children has been shown to have a positive effect on life-happiness, but find me a parent that can honestly say they are truly happy when awoken at 3am by a crying baby and I’ll buy you a diet coke (apparently it is better for you in the long run but I understand that most people don’t care about that).

To ask a person where they view themselves on, say, a happiness scale of from one to ten, tells less than some may want to read into it. If someone ranks themselves at a happiness level of 8 on this scale, does this mean that they are experiencing twice as much happiness as someone who selected a happiness level of 4 on the scale? Or if they were comparing their own current level of happiness with the level of happiness they experienced a year earlier, could we say that this person is twice as happy as they were 12 months ago? Twice as happy in terms of what unit or standard of measurement?

Self-reported happiness is easily skewed by current states of mind. I might even argue that, given that happiness itself is a state of mind, it is immeasurable. In fact, in one of its studies on happiness, the World Bank notes that, “Data on happiness are notoriously subjective and culture- and country-specific and should be interpreted with a healthy dose of caution.” For instance, a happiness level of, say, 5 might not mean the exact same level of genuine happiness in another country with the same numerical level. As a result, findings on happiness studies cannot be considered “scientific”.

My motive was never to dismiss the report simply because Africa has underperformed, rather to provide constructive criticism about the methodology and the findings. You should do the same, that might just make me happy.