Gallup global managing partner Jon Clifton provided some insights into the annual World Happiness Report and Gallup's survey process and mission at Midland University on Friday at Kimmel Theater. 

What makes people happy? Does money really buy happiness? Which country is the happiest in the world?

While these questions may be unanswerable, Gallup’s Jon Clifton provided some insight into how his company is endeavoring to quantify the ever-elusive idea of “happiness.” In the end, it really all depends on how you define ‘happiness,’ Clifton said in a speech at Midland University on Friday afternoon.

“About 12 years ago we (Gallup) said we are going to start measuring happiness around the world,” he told the crowd within Kimmel Theater. “So, I’m going to show you some of the trends we’ve found, how we do it, and what it looks like.”

Clifton, who is a global managing partner and board member of Gallup and a Nebraska native, will be the principal speaker at Midland’s commencement ceremony this weekend, but prior to addressing a sea of graduates on Saturday he spent an hour speaking about the annual World Happiness Report and Gallup’s mission to measure happiness to students and area residents on Friday.

Much of Clifton’s presentation focused on the annual World Happiness Report which is released by the United Nations each year. The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be and is compiled through data collected by Gallup.

Much of Gallup’s effort to collect such data is based upon behavioral economics which Clifton described as such:

“Behavioral economics is basically this—if economics assumes that human beings are rational, behavioral economics says no they are not,” he said. “They say that about 30 percent of what human beings do is rational, the other 70 percent is emotional.”

Clifton provided an example based on paper towel sales in a grocery store, where a store offers a sale on the same paper towels, but one is offered as buy-one-get-one-free and the other is offered as half-off.

“Economically its exactly the same deal, but one of them sells better,” he said. “Why? Because the presence of the world free is playing on people’s emotional behavior.”

Through the lens of behavioral economics, Clifton laid out why Gallup’s World Poll and the World Happiness Report are crucial to understanding how to progress societies and create policy that actually impacts the lives of people in countries around the world.

“Why is it then that when global leaders look to data to see if societies are progressing they only use data based on the 30 percent—things like GDP (gross domestic product) and unemployment,” he said. “They know whether or not we are spending, they know our income, they know whether or not we have job, but what they don’t know is how we feel.”

Clifton then provided trends gleaned from Gallup research that showed while the GDP of the United Kingdom was rising prior to Brexit, and unemployment was nearing a low of 5 percent, its citizens were also reporting a much lower level of happiness just before the initial vote.

“There was a 15 point collapse, and that is one of the single biggest collapses that we have ever seen over a 2 year period in our entire database of 160 countries,” he said. “If that were a 15 point increase of unemployment it would be headline news everywhere, but when it comes to how people feel it goes almost completely unnoticed by leaders.”

He also provided examples of similar trends that occurred in Egypt just prior to the Arab Spring, Ukraine just prior to its revolution in 2014, and in the United States just prior to the 2016 Presidential Election.

“These four trends are not to suggest that Gallup has some sort of predictive measure, or that measuring how people feel will predict a revolution or a surprising outcome in an election,” he said. “These trends are to suggest that we cannot solely rely on traditional economic indicators to understand societal progress.”

Clifton also provided some insight into how Gallup conducts its extensive surveys.

“In 100 countries around the world we still do face-to-face interviewing,” he said. “We translate everything into every major language in each country—if 5 percent of people speak that language we translate it into that language.”

“We ask how their lives are going, take that information and aggregate it at at the national level, work with the U.N. and that’s how we create the official statistics for the world on happiness.”

How Gallup quantifies happiness is also split into two separate categories.

“We came up with two different concepts because when we think of what makes a great life we think of two things—how people see their life, and how they live their life,” he said.

When quantifying evaluative well-being (how people see their life), versus experiential well-being (how people live their life) the Gallup happiness rankings produce vastly different results.

While the World Happiness Report has almost always featured Nordic countries at the top of the list—with Denmark and Finland ranking highest over the past several years, those figures are based on evaluative well-being and not experiential well-being.

“Those results are based on data that asks rank your life on a scale from 0-10, and a lot don’t think it’s actually a measure of happiness but a measure of contentedness—and I tend to agree,” he said. “If you ask about how people live their lives, the presence of enjoyment, the presence of laughing and smiling a lot and the absence of physical pain, anger,stress and sadness the list is much different.”

When tracked through experiential well-being the list is made up of almost entirely Latin American countries with Paraguay, Panama and Guatemala making up the three highest ranked countries.

Clifton broke it down saying that the evaluative well-being rankings are mostly driven by income, human development and life expectancy, while the latter is driven by freedom, generosity and time spent with friends and family.

While the rankings may still not solve the riddle of how to be happy, or who is the happiest, Clifton says are needed statistics along with metrics like GDP and unemployment rates.

“These two metrics are at least taking us further to understand how people feel, so that world leaders not only have the traditional economic metric which are very informative and we need them, but we also need the other side on how people feel,” he said.

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