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Researchers from Sweden question the accuracy of the World Happiness Report

The Cantril Ladder has been a reliable metric for assessing global happiness by comparing results across cultures and time
The Cantril Ladder has been a reliable metric for assessing global happiness by comparing results across cultures and time. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Finland consistently ranks as the happiest country globally according to the World Happiness Report, which measures global contentment using a straightforward question.

This question, known as The Cantril Ladder, asks respondents to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where 10 represents the best possible life and 0 the worst, and to indicate where they feel they stand.


Despite its simplicity, a new study from Lund University in Sweden reveals this method might inadvertently focus thoughts on wealth and power rather than a comprehensive understanding of happiness.

The Cantril Ladder has been a reliable metric for assessing global happiness by comparing results across cultures and time. However, the study, involving 1,500 UK adults, suggests the question might narrow the interpretation of well-being to material success and societal status. August Nilsson, a PhD student and the study's lead author, highlighted a critical concern: “The risk is that we are measuring a narrow, wealth and power-oriented form of well-being, rather than broader definitions of happiness.”


Researchers found that when the wording of the Cantril Ladder was altered—for instance, changing “best possible life” to “most harmonious life”—respondents’ focus shifted away from power and wealth. This suggests that the original phrasing could be limiting the scope of happiness as understood in everyday life, which encompasses more than financial and social status.

Previous research corroborates that the Cantril Ladder predominantly reflects income levels and social status more than other well-being metrics.


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The recent study builds on this by showing a significant association between the ladder's phrasing and thoughts of power and wealth. For example, when analyzing the responses, 17% of the descriptors chosen by participants related directly to wealth and power.

This number decreased when modifications were made to the question's structure or phrasing. Removing the ladder analogy altogether saw a decrease in power and money language to 11%, and further elimination of the bottom versus top description reduced it to 7%.


Moreover, rephrasing the question to focus on a “most harmonious life” at step 10 saw the focus on wealth and power drop to 5%, with a concurrent increase in mentions of broader well-being aspects such as relationships, work-life balance, and health.

Nilsson emphasized the importance of this finding, noting, “Our study was conducted solely in the UK, so of course this research should be performed in other countries too, given the global nature of this topic. However, our results indicate that we aren’t necessarily measuring happiness and well-being in a way that is in line with how we actually define those concepts in our lives. This deserves further exploration.”


The study points to the need for a more nuanced approach to measuring happiness that transcends economic indicators and social rankings. By adjusting how happiness is quantified, researchers could foster a more accurate understanding of well-being that reflects the diverse and complex nature of human experiences.

As the World Happiness Report continues to influence public policy and societal views on well-being, the implications of these findings are significant. They suggest that reevaluating the metrics used to measure happiness could lead to a better understanding of what truly contributes to a fulfilling life, beyond material wealth and societal status.

This would not only align the metrics with real-life definitions of happiness but also guide better policies that address the multifaceted nature of well-being.


World's top 25 happiest countries:

1. Finland

2. Denmark

3. Iceland

4. Sweden

5. Israel

6. Netherlands

7. Norway

8. Luxembourg

9. Switzerland

10. Australia

11. New Zealand

12. Costa Rica

13. Kuwait

14. Austria

15. Canada

16. Belgium

17. Ireland

18. Czechia

19. Lithuania

20. United Kingdom


World's top 25 happiest countries: (cont.)

21. Slovenia

22. United Arab Emirates

23. United States

24. Germany

25. Mexico

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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