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Gallup is tracking world happiness to understand what’s really happening in the world

The polling group thinks measuring well-being is the easiest way to compare countries and see potential flash points before they start.

Gallup is tracking world happiness to understand what’s really happening in the world
[Photo: vasabii/iStock]

Before society shaking events like Brexit vote, Arab Uprisings, and the Euromaidan Revolution, the economy in the United Kingdom, Egypt, and Ukraine had been rising steadily. If you were looking simply at GDP, those places would have seemed unlikely locations for big moments of unrest. But, clearly, there are many metrics at work besides broad economic numbers. As the saying goes (sort of), money can’t buy social well-being.

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To better spot what can and why that matters, Gallup just launched its Global Happiness Center. The new online hub shares findings around the well-being numbers Gallup has been gathering for the past 13 years. Since 2006, the polling group and consultancy has been asking questions about social well-being as part of an annual survey of at least 1,000 people across 140 countries to try to create what editor-in-chief Mohamed Younis considers one of the few universally comparative metrics across nations.

“As a global organization, one of the challenges for us is: what can you measure that actually can compare Sweden to Somalia?” Younis says. “Because the realities in Sweden and Somalia are completely different, right? We can talk about jobs, but it means something totally different because the economies are different. We can talk about self-determination, but it means something totally different cause the political systems are different. But this metric—how people’s lives are going—actually can be consistently compared from country to country.”

Gallup does that in two main ways. The first is by asking respondents to rate recent “experiential” moments that are likely to correlate with their immediate mood. On the plus side, that might be experiencing laughter or smiling, learning or enjoying something new, and feeling well-rested or treated with respect. On the minus, it’d include moments of stress, worry, sadness, anger, or physical pain.

The second tracks what Younis called “subjective” well-being. Participants are asked to imagine a ladder with 10 rungs, each representing a step in the right direction for their ideal life. They’re asked to rate their progress on that ladder currently and to project it five years ahead. Someone who has a low-rung ranking but expects to climb higher is obviously in a precarious position but has reason to be optimistic. Gallup averages and compares these rankings to figure out where people’s quality of life seems to be thriving, struggling, or suffering.

“What we find as we look across the world was that in places like the Middle East or the United Kingdom . . . all of the sorts destabilizing events that took place in those locations coincided with a relatively negative trajectory for people’s life evaluation in each of those countries,” he says. In the United States, the same declines presaged the election of Donald Trump.

The hub will incorporate the group’s existing global emotions map that helps people click on different positive or negative emotional experiences to see where they’re most prevalent around the globe. As a consultancy, Gallup can parse this data even further for executives and decision-makers trying to tease out what might be driving people in certain areas or age brackets to feel the way they do. As a part of its polling practices, the group has created a representative sample of 99% of the world’s population that can weigh in on topics that range from the effectiveness of the justice system to true value of their job market.

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“In Europe, for example, [in] Muslim minority communities, what you’ll find is the perception that people’s lives are not going well is more driven by feelings of social isolation versus in other communities where the perception that their lives not going well were much more related to the opportunities to find a good job or opportunities for social mobility,” he says. That’s the sort of insight that proves helpful to community leaders, community groups, and companies trying to make the world a little brighter for everyone.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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