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The Unhappiest Country In The World

Moldovans are the unhappiest people in the world. That's according to data from the World Values Survey, whose researchers interviewed tens of thousands of people in over 60 countries during the last decade. Only 44% of people in Moldova said they were happy, the lowest proportion of all the countries surveyed. Is Moldova really such an unhappy place, and why?

These statistics from the World Values Survey are often quoted in a growing body of academic research into what causes happiness, and what implications there are for public policy. Often the answers to the “are you happy?” question are averaged with those to another, slightly different question – “are you satisfied with your life?” – to produce a broader measure called subjective well-being. Moldova comes out bottom on this count, too.

Country % “happy”
Iceland 97
New Zealand 95
Sweden 95
Switzerland 95
Australia 94
Denmark 94
Norway 94
USA 94
...  
Armenia 57
Bulgaria 57
Lithuania 57
Slovakia 52
Russia 51
Ukraine 48
Belarus 46
Moldova 44

Source: World Values Surveys,
www.worldvaluessurvey.org

So what does cause happiness? Your instinctive response might be “money, of course” – and you'd be right, but only up to a point. A glance at the table shows that the unhappy countries are much poorer than the happy ones. But when you plot subjective well-being against a country's average income on a graph, you find there's a strong relationship up to a certain point – around $10,000 per year – but after that the relationship breaks down. Even more income doesn't make you even happier.

Of course, Moldova isn't anywhere near that point yet. But poverty can't be the whole story. There are countries even poorer than Moldova which are nonetheless much happier: Nigeria and Bangladesh, for example, have a lower average income than Moldova but their happiness rates are 81% and 85% respectively. Brazilians are only slightly better off than Moldovans, but 83% of them are happy. A whopping 93% of people in the Philippines consider themselves happy, despite income levels on a par with Moldova.

Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh and the Philippines are warm and sunny places, so might harsh Moldovan winters be at fault? That hardly seems plausible when you consider that the happiest place in the world is Iceland.

Could it be that language problems are to blame? Perhaps the word “happiness” translates differently in Bangladesh and the Philippines than it does in Moldova, leading people to apply different standards. This is a possibility, but the evidence is against it: French-speaking Swiss people are happier than French people, Italian speakers in Switzerland are happier than Italians, and Swiss who speak German are happier than Germans. This suggests that it's not something about what language they speak that makes Swiss people happy, but something about living in Switzerland.

Perhaps Moldovans were asked at a bad time. The data collected from different countries was not all gathered simultaneously, and that for Moldova came from a survey in 1995, arguably at the height of the difficulties caused by the transition from the Soviet era. But another, more comprehensive survey carried out in 2001 by a different organization suggests little has changed: Moldovans were slightly happier, 51% compared to 44%, but still came out bottom of the eight former Soviet states surveyed (Ukraine and Belarus were next most unhappy, at 53% and 60% respectively; Moldova seems to be the worst-hit victim of some kind of regional malaise).

It must be in political history where much of the answer lies, as all the other countries towards the bottom of the happiness list had also lived under communism. While it's easy to find examples of happy and poor countries, it's hard to find former communist states among them, Azerbaijan (78%) being the best candidate. The happiest states with a communist history, such as Poland (86%), the former East Germany (79%) and Hungary (78%), tend also to be the ones which have made the most economic progress.

Even then, they are less happy than other countries with similar income levels but without a communist past. As Ronald Inglehart and Hans-Dieter Klingemann, two of the leading academic researchers into the data on happiness, note: “Virtually all societies that experienced communist rule show relatively low levels of subjective well-being, even when compared with societies at a much lower economic level.”

Were people happier under communism? That's a difficult question to answer because only one survey of happiness was conducted in the Soviet Union. But the data from this survey suggests so. The Tambov region of Russia, the only part surveyed in the Soviet era, recorded 64% happiness in 1981 and only 47% in 1995. (The answers to the “satisfaction” question are even starker, down from 76% to 25% in the same period.) The only other country surveyed while under a communist regime was Hungary, 78% happy in 1981, dipping to 68% as communism ended in 1990 and back up to 78% by 1998. (“Satisfaction”, though, continued to decline: from 71% to 56% to 52%).

While inhabitants of both Hungary and Tambov were significantly unhappier in 1981 than those of other states with similar income levels, the ending of communism made them even less happy. It seems reasonable to think the same historical pattern of happiness will be true for Moldova.

So what is it about life after communism that causes such misery? The increase in poverty is an obvious reason: according to the United Nations Development Program, the incidence of poverty in Moldova increased from 2.1% to 40.6% between 1991 and 1993. But there are other reasons. Unemployment and lack of job security are strongly correlated with unhappiness, and both increased markedly with the end of communism.

Health is another strong contributor to happiness. (Although, interestingly, “self-reported” health – how healthy you think you are – is much more closely related to happiness than “objective” health, or how healthy a doctor thinks you are. Having a positive outlook on your health seems to be the biggest factor). The ending of communism took a toll on Moldovans' health. Again according to the UNDP, the general mortality rate increased from 9.7 persons per 1000 in 1990 to 12.2 in 1995, and the infant mortality rate from 19.0 in 1990 to 22.6 four years later. In 1994, 26,300 people were treated at Moldovan medical institutions, down from 69,500 in 1980, presumably because the escalating costs of medical treatment led to more illnesses going untreated rather than because there were fewer illnesses needing treatment.

As noted in a strategy paper issued by the British government, inequality also makes people unhappy – in Europe, at least; Americans say they don't mind it so much. Assuming Moldovans share the European cultural preference for more equal societies, the rapid increases in inequality that accompanied the transition from communism must have increased levels of unhappiness.

The same paper notes that the quality of a country's governance also affects happiness; in particular, there is evidence that the more democracy and political freedoms people enjoy, the happier they are. In theory, the increase in political freedom and democracy after communism should have made Moldovans happier, but in practice it is arguable that the overall quality of governance may not have improved or may even have deteriorated. Corruption of public officials is also strongly correlated with unhappiness. And there are exceptions to the freedom rule: China, although a highly authoritarian society, has relatively high levels of subjective well-being.

Finally, there is a strong relationship between how happy people are and how much control they feel they have over their lives. As Inglehart, Klingemann and Chris Welzel point out: “ In each of 148 national representative surveys, conducted in diverse societies ranging from Uganda to China, Iran, Brazil, Sweden and Poland, there is a strong correlation between people's perception of how much choice they have in shaping their lives, and their level of life satisfaction.” The lack of choice under communism may well explain why communist societies were more unhappy than others with similar incomes, but the uncertainties that accompanied the transition from communism may actually have led people to feel even less in control of their destinies.

At an individual level, there are other factors to be considered. Marriage has a big effect on an individual's happiness – equivalent to an increase of over $100,000 in annual income, according to one estimate. Religious people are slightly happier, as are those who exercise or play sport. But differences in marital status, income, job satisfaction, health and so on explain surprisingly little of the variations in people's levels of subjective well-being. A large amount of our propensity to be happy seems to be beyond our personal control, coded in our genetic inheritance.

A study of over 3,000 twins (Lykken and Tellegen, 1996) showed that identical twins report similar levels of happiness regardless of their life experiences, whereas non-identical twins – who shared a womb, but have different genes – do not. These studies suggest that around 45-50% of happiness is genetic. How happy your identical twin is, or even how happy your identical twin was ten years ago, is a much better predictor of your happiness than your income, education or social status. If you're prone to unhappiness – or happiness – you may simply have been born that way.

Genetic differences can't explain national differences, though: happiness levels within nations are known to have changed far more quickly than could possibly be explained by genes. It's implausible that there could be a disproportionate tendency to misery in the Moldovan gene pool.

And this is encouraging, because it suggests that whatever the precise combination of causes behind Moldova's bottom ranking in the happiness table, they are susceptible to change. Exactly why Moldova is so unhappy may still be mysterious, but the broad outlines of what's required are clear. With more wealth, health, good governance, freedom, democracy and equality, Moldovans can be happy too.

By Andrew Wright

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