Cross-country variations in happiness


In our first ever guest blog, Marion Burkimsher writes about happiness levels across Europe, over the history of the ESS, based on a question about happiness asked in all seven rounds.

The question “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?” has been fielded in all seven waves of the European Social Survey. We looked at the trends over the seven waves from 2002-2014 for 18 countries in all, thirteen in Western Europe and five in Eastern Europe.

The ranking of countries by average level of happiness was quite stable over time, although the economic crisis hit Ireland hard and it slipped in rank. In contrast, Germany rose in rank after 2006 and Poland moved up four places.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the economic recession and associated unemployment thereafter affected the happiness level of many countries surprisingly mildly, although young people (18-29) were hit harder in Hungary, Portugal, Ireland and the Czech Republic.

There are correlations between country-level GDP per person and happiness. The association is, however, closer for seniors (50-69) than young people (18-29).

Poland and Finland and, for young people, Spain and Slovenia are happier countries than you might expect them to be compared to their GDP ranking. Ireland and, for young people, also Portugal, Norway and the United Kingdom are less happy than you would expect.

The explanation is likely to be that it is not just GDP at one point in time (2014) that has an influence but its upward or downward trend in recent years.

In general younger people are happier than older generations, although the differentials are slight in richer and Western European countries and much more marked in poorer and Eastern European countries.

Young people are more similar in happiness levels across Europe than older people. However, the older generation in Eastern Europe has been getting steadily happier since 2002.

Comparing European countries there is a correlation of GDP per person and the relative happiness of seniors compared to young adults: the wealthier the country, the happier are the older generation compared to young adults. In the UK, Ireland, Denmark and, marginally, Sweden older people are actually happier than the young.

Young people seem more reactive to external influences on their level of happiness: they might be bellwethers of a country’s trajectory. Whereas only one country changed significantly in happiness rank for seniors between 2002 and 2014 (Ireland, which dropped eight places), there was more volatility amongst young people between those years.

The young adults of Ireland, France and Portugal dropped six places in the happiness ranking comparing 2014 with 2002. In Hungary they also dropped significantly in happiness, although their ranking dropped only one place because they started at a low rank.

In contrast, the young adults in Germany, Poland and Sweden became happier, rising four or more places in country rank, compared to those of the same age group 12 years earlier.

Marion Burkimsher is an Affiliate Researcher at the University of Lausanne. She will be presenting her paper -"Cross-country variations in happiness: Trends, age differentials and anomalies" - at the 3rd International ESS Conference in Lausanne from 4-5.30pm on Wednesday 13 July.