World Happiness Report: inequality on the rise

25th March 2016 / Global

This year’s World Happiness Report featured a section on inequality in happiness.

The vast majority of research on wellbeing has so far focussed simply on average wellbeing. While these headlines are useful, they don’t tell us how many are being left behind.

Just as one can talk about the inequality of income, one can also look at inequalities in happiness.

As we’ve argued before, understanding inequalities in happiness is crucial if we want to increase the wellbeing of the worst off, fastest.

So how are we doing on happiness inequality?

Between the periods 2005-2007 and 2013-15, happiness inequality increased within most countries, in almost all regions and for the world as a whole.

The UK has seen no significant change – happiness inequality isn’t getting worse, but nor is it getting better. We’re the 46th most equal country out of 157 when it comes to happiness.

Perhaps if average happiness were increasing at the same time, rising inequality might be a price worth paying. But such an increase is hard to find.

The authors don’t report changes in the world average, but they do tell us that between the periods 2005-2007, and 2013-2015, 43% of countries saw a decrease in average happiness compared to just 20% seeing an increase.

This global picture of increasing inequality and decreasing average wellbeing is extremely worrying. But why is it happening?

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The global economic crash in 2008 no doubt explains part of these trends, but simple economic output certainly can’t tell the whole story.

While global GDP growth might have slowed, GDP itself has continued to grow over the same period, with a relatively short blip in 2009. So if the answer to happiness was simply an increase in consumption, the world should have become happier.

More likely are explanations of how countries dealt with the crash. Iceland, for example, was one of the hardest hit by the banking crisis, but remains third on the country listings in 2013-15 for average happiness and saw the second largest increase in happiness equality, taking it to the fifth most equal country in the world.

The authors of the World Happiness Report point to the strong community networks and social connections in Iceland which helped protect citizens’ happiness, but it is also notable that Iceland took a famously maverick route out of the economic crash: jailing the bankers and rejecting austerity.

Greece, on the other hand, is a prime example of the devastating effects of austerity. It’s seen the largest fall in average wellbeing of any country in the world, alongside one of the largest increases in happiness inequality.

The reasons for these worsening trends will of course differ between regions and countries, as will the solutions to reducing them. The global picture nevertheless presents a sobering story.

Just months after the world’s global leaders have agreed the Sustainable Development Goals, this story shows such a vision has never been more needed – not only for poorer regions, but for the majority of countries in the world.


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