CEPAR Seminar: The futility of between-nation wellbeing comparisons

Date & time

12.30pm 22 April 2016


Dr Richard Burns


 Kimberly Ashby-Mitchell


To coincide with World Happiness Day on March 20th, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released the World Happiness Report 2016, ranking 156 nations by their reported happiness levels. The report was covered widely in the media[1]; Denmark was again reported to top the globe as the happiest nation[1]. Between-nation differences in mean levels of subjective wellbeing are frequently reported. 

Between nations differences are touted to demonstrate the impact of different national social and economic policies. Comparisons between those born and raised in a country with those born in the same country but raised in another country provide further support for the impact of national differences; Veenhoven [2] identified wellbeing differences between French and Dutch-Speaking Belgians and those living in France and Holland as support for the impact of culture and society. However, such comparisons of cross-national surveys have limitations.  Major cross-national surveys are drawn from averaged-population-level data. Even where respondent-level data is available, analyses ignore the extent to which wellbeing varies within countries, ignoring the clustered nature of such data.

This presentation will emphasise that nations should be less concerned about addressing between-nation differences in population wellbeing, but on the inequalities that exist within nations and which drive within-nation wellbeing differences.

1. Chan S. Denmark Ranks as Happiest Country; Burundi, Not So Much. The New York Times. 2016 March 16, 2016.
2. Veenhoven R. Cross-national differences in happiness: Cultural measurement bias or effect of culture? International Journal of Wellbeing 2012; 2(4): 333-53.
3. Stoop I, Jowell R, Mohler P. The European Social Survey: One survey in two dozen countries.  The international conference on improving surveys; 25-28 August 2002; Copenhagen,2002.

Biographical details

Dr Richard Burns is Research Fellow at the Centre for Ageing, Health and Wellbeing (CRAHW).  He specialises in mental health, geriatricts and gerontology, developmental psychology and ageing, educational psychology, and industrial and organisational psychology.

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