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Finland is the happiest country in the world – but our research suggests the ranking is biased towards wealth and status

Finland has always been considered the happiest country in the world. In March 2024, the country was ranked as a happiness champion for the seventh consecutive year. The ranking is based on a simple question asked to people on the other side. A ladder metaphor is used almost every country in the world. But my team’s new experimental study suggests that the ladder metaphor encourages people to think about power and wealth.

Since 2005, the analytics company Gallup has been working to measure happiness around the world. The mission is particularly important as more governments say they prioritize the well-being of their people.

For example, all OECD countries now measure the happiness of their people including Great Britain. More than a decade ago, Bhutan declared that its government’s primary goal was “Gross National Happiness”not the gross domestic product.

The world rankings are based on a simple but powerful question called the Cantril Ladder:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. What rung of the ladder would you personally feel you are currently at?

When you read the question, what do you think of when you hear the metaphor “at the top of the ladder” and what does it represent to you? Is it love, money, your family – or something else?

I recently led a group of researchers from Sweden, the US and the UK. We investigated these questions in a study of 1,600 adults in the UK and published our results in Scientific reports. We conducted an experiment with five independent groups.

One group was asked what represented the top of the ladder for them. Another group was asked the exact same question, but this time the ladder metaphor, including the image of the ladder, was removed and the term “ladder” was replaced with “scale.”

Our study found that the ladder metaphor caused people to think more about power and wealth and less about family, friends and mental health. When the ladder metaphor was removed, people still thought of money, but in terms of “financial security” rather than terms like “wealth,” “rich,” or “upper class.”

Man punches the air while banknotes float in the air.
Money is not always the same as happiness.
Minerva Studio/Shutterstock

In a third group, people interpreted a question with the ladder metaphor and the “top/bottom” description removed from the question. In a fourth and fifth independent group, in addition to the above changes, the phrase “best possible life” was replaced by “happiest possible life” and “most harmonious life,” respectively.

Compared to the other groups, people in the Happiness and Harmony groups thought less about power and wealth and more about broader forms of well-being such as relationships, work-life balance and mental health.

People don’t want to be at the top of the ladder

My The research team also asked people where they wanted to be on the scale of the various questions. Researchers often assume that people want the best life possible, but to our knowledge no one has tested this. The results showed that in no group did more than half of the participants want the best possible life for ten years. The typical wish was a nine.

Except the group with the ladder analogy. Normally they wanted an eight. The ladder metaphor made people think more about power and wealth, at the expense of relationships, mental health and work-life balance – and made them want a lower score.

What does this say about the happiness rankings in which Finland often tops? Now there is a danger that the ranking is based on a narrow definition of happiness focused on wealth and power rather than a broader definition. This does not mean that Finns are unhappy, but the type of happiness in which they excel could be focused on power and wealth.

Our The study results raise the question of what type of happiness we want to measure. No researcher can determine a person’s idea of ​​happiness. That’s why researchers have to ask people about their concept of happiness.

Research has shown When people define happiness, they make little mention of wealth and status. It is common knowledge that money refers to well-being But the money effect is weaker than many other factors of happiness that involve good social relationships strongest effect.

Current research by the University of Oxford shows that happiness actually causes people to be more productive and that the most important factor in happiness at work is belonging. Salary, on the other hand, is considered the most important factor for happiness at work, but turns out to be a much weaker factor for happiness at work as belonging. This is consistent with the general message of happiness science that relationships are the most important factor in happiness.

What kind of happiness do we want to measure?

Previous research has shown that the Cantril ladder reflects people’s income levels and social status to a greater extent than others Well-being metrics. The current study provides further evidence that the simple but powerful question could potentially be supplemented in the future with additional questions to clarify what people understand by happiness.

Our study was carried out exclusively in the UK, so of course this research should also be carried out in other countries given the global nature of this topic. However, our results suggest that we do not necessarily measure happiness and well-being in a way that is consistent with how these concepts are actually defined in our lives.

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