A happy life: Does it depend on where you live?

Hi, this is Daniela. I am responsible for the administrative side and everything organizational at Datawrapper.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing with friends whether we are actually happy. A friend who is from Aarhus, Denmark, said that she has been less satisfied with her life since she moved to Berlin, Germany, three years ago. The Germans seem less happy and less satisfied with their lives, and that makes her feel less happy herself. She is even thinking about moving back to Denmark. This got me thinking. Today I want to see if it is indeed the case that people in Germany are less happy than people in Denmark.

Can happiness be measured?

The annual World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, is the largest study of the state of global happiness. It uses data from the polling company Gallup, which asks 1,000 people in each of about 160 countries to rate the quality of their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10 – the happiness score. In its further research efforts, the WHR also tries to define and weigh possible factors such as GDP, social support, and life expectancy, as well as personal freedom.

Let's see how happy people are in different countries.

What immediately strikes me is the cluster of high-performing Nordic countries at the top of the ranking, which suggests that there are shared features of policy and perhaps geography and culture that matter. Meanwhile, the countries at the bottom of the list are less homogenous but nonetheless all either war-torn, close to being destitute, or maybe both. Also clear: the Danes (ranked second) actually do seem to be happier with their lives than the Germans (in 17th place).

Unfortunately, I could not use the most recent figures from the World Happiness Report 2021, which has a COVID-19 theme, as the associated data is not available for public use. But I was able to get the numbers for Germany and Denmark from a table in the report:

It is interesting to note that, while Denmark remains ahead in the current ranking (third place, happiness score of 7.52), Germany has caught up and is now in seventh place (happiness score of 7.31). We Germans might feel we have come through the crisis reasonably well. In any case, the gap between the two countries has narrowed significantly.

This is where the confidence interval becomes interesting. Each country's numerical score was based on a sample of 1000 people. However, this can only be an estimate of the score that would result from a survey of the whole population. Furthermore, the country rankings from the first chart show data averaged over 2016-2018, but not every country participated in the surveys in every year. And in 2021, the interviewers were faced with special challenges due to the pandemic and resulting restrictions, and were in some cases only able to conduct telephone interviews — which, in their eyes, could lead to minor inaccuracies in the 2020 results. The 95% confidence interval indicates a range of values that is likely to contain the "true" happiness score of each country. So the truth lies somewhere in between.

I have marked this range in the chart with gray bars. If you take a look at the gray-striped areas in chart number two, these estimation areas clearly overlap. So, for example, it could be that Denmark's actual happiness score is lower in its range (7.38), while Germany's could be higher (7.46). In reality, the Germans might even be happier than the Danes.

Can I understand my friend better now?

There is indeed a (small) difference in how happy people in our two countries consider themselves to be. But to be honest, I feel like the numerical difference in the two scores is too small to worry about — especially since the confidence interval shows that, at least last year, it was not clear which of the two countries' citizens were more satisfied.

Nevertheless, my friend certainly has her own personal reasons for thinking about moving back to the "happier" Denmark. And she may feel the difference is more serious than the numbers can show me. Because it is what it is: happiness is subjective. But if she moves, I will miss her. Will that make me less happy?

That's it for this week! If you want to learn how to add confidence intervals to your own bar charts, visit our blog post from June 2nd. See you next week and stay happy!