Monday Graph: Happiness and Human Development Accross the World


In July this year, The Economist’s Graphic Detail blog has looked at the relation between Human Development Index (which ranks countries by life expectancy, education and income per person) and reported feelings of happiness /positive emotions, as reported in a Gallup poll.

happiness hdi

(click on the image to see the interactive map and read the original Economist article)

At first sight, there does not seem to be much of a link between HDI and experiencing feelings of happiness; apart from noting that people in Latin American/Carribean countries appear to experience positive feelings more often and in South, Central Asia and non-EU Europe less often, interesting patterns are not readily visible.

However, let’s look a bit more closely.

Bottom-left-corner, countries with a low HDI and low level of happiness:

low happiness low hdi

What do these countries have in common, apart from a low HDI index?

First of all, by Freedom House ratings, none of these countries are free (Chad, both Congos, Yemen, Tajikistan  and Ethiopia are not free, while Haiti, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Kyrgizstan are partly free). By the Economist’s own democracy index, Bangladesh is the only ‘flawed democracy’, all other being hybrid regimes or outright authoritarian regimes. By Global Peace index, they are among the least peaceful countries in the world. (Chad, D R Congo, Yemen, Ethiopia and Pakistan are in the lowest 20%, while Sierra Leone and Nepal, both of which have experienced civil war within the last 10 years,are the only-ones slightly above the 50% mark). By Transparency International’s corruption perception index, Chad, Haiti, Yemen are in the bottom 10%, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and both Congos in the bottom 20%, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the bottom 30%, all countries in the lowest 50%.

So far, so unsurprising: citizens of poor, war-torn countries with corrupt and repressive regimes are not the ones we would expect to experience the most positive feelings.

Now, let’s look at the top of the chart: countries not faring much better, in terms of HDI than the ones above, but who experience higher levels of happiness/positive feelings.

high happiness low hdi

What makes the difference between these countries and their less happy counterparts?

At least some, although by no means all of these countries are -to an extent at least, more democratic than their more unhappy counterparts. In Freedom House Ratings, Ghana and  Senegal are free, Angola, Laos, Vietnam and Rwanda are not free, all others are partly free. None of them is a ful democracy, but four countries (Ghana, Zambia, Malawi and Senegal) are counted as flawed democracies by the Economist.

By Global Peace Index ratings, with some exceptions, they are more peaceful; including some of the non-democratic regimes: Laos ranks #38 and Vietnam #45, which puts them in the vicinity of countries such as Italy, Romania, Argentina and Lithuania. The more democratic Zambia ranks #44, Nicaragua #58, Ghana #61, Morocco #63 (comparable with Serbia, Kosovo and Albania), Malawi and Senegal rank #72 and #77 respectively, comparable with Moldova, Cuba or Nepa; these countries fall in the 50% more peaceful countries in the world

On the other hand, countries such as Mali, Rwanda, Kenya and Angola, in the bottom 20%, are neither more democratic nor more peaceful than their more unhappy counterparts. It could be the case that having been through some of the most severe humanitarian crises in recent history, they feel things are relatively improving despite still falling behind on all indicators compared to other countries; while the human rights situation in the first group of countries has been more constantly severe or deteriorating.

Rwanda, for instance, is one of the countries which is on track in fulfilling the 4th and 5th Millennium Development Goals, reducing the maternal mortality ratio from 1,400 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 320 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2013 and the post-genocide burden of diseases such as malaria,tuberculosis and AIDS is being gradually alleviated. Between 2006 and 2011, the poverty rate reduced from 57% to 45%.

By comparison, in Chad, 80% of the population lives below the poverty line and despite the recent discovery of crude oil/development of oil industry, the figure has not changed in any significant way over the years. Furthermore, Chad has been affected by a humanitarian crisis since at least 2001, hosting over 280,000 refugees from the Sudan’s Darfur region, over 55,000 from the Central African Republic, as well as over 170,000 internally displaced persons.

In terms of human development index, as well as global peace rankings, Rwanda and Chad are relatively similar to each other; and none of the countries has by any means or measure a democratic regime. However, as the graph shows, people in Rwanda are more likely than people in Chad to experience positive feelings; and also less likely to perceive their own country as corrupt (In Transparency international’s Perception of Corruption index, Rwanda ranks #49, above Turkey and the Czech Republic. Chad ranks #163, below Zimbabwe, Burma or Cambodia.)

Happiness is very much relative: the average citizen of Rwanda may not be much better-off than the average citizen of Chad; but they definitely perceive themselves to be better-off than they were several years ago.

Onto the countries with a high HDI who also experience high levels of positive feelings:

high happiness high hdi

This group is the most diverse and possibly the hardest to pin down based on indicators: it features Australia, the USA, Canada, a lot of EU and EEA countries (the UK, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Poland), the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain), east Asia (Japan, Singapore, Malaysia) and Latin America (Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago.

Some of the most democratic countries in the world  are featured (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, Canada), but so are flawed democracies (Poland, Portugal, Panama, Mexico, Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, Malaysia)  “partly free” hybrid regimes (Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Singapore), and outright dictatorial regimes (Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia)

Within the EU, countries with a lower Gini coefficient of inequality (that is, countries where the income is more equally distributed) appear to be happier than the ones with more inequality; however, this does not necessarily hold true outside of Europe; people in Sweden experience positive feelings just as much as people in the USA, with a similar HDI but much stronger inequality; most Asian and Latin American countries featured are more unequal than the world average, Brazil, Mexico, Panama and Chile being among the 20 most unequal countries in the world.

Nor are these countries necessarily the most peaceful (although they do tend to be more so, on average) : while most European countries featured, along with Canada, Australia, Chile and Qatar are easily in the top 20% most peaceful, Saudi Arabia is, for instance, less peaceful than Tunisia or Nepal, and Mexico is in the 10% less peaceful, ranking below countries like Rwanda, Burma and Libya).

Again, this is an important reminder that happiness is relative and, while, as we would expect, most developed, democratic, egalitarian countries are in this side of the chart, these are not the only factors at play.

Now  finally, let’s look at the countries with a high HDI, but whose citizens are rarely experiencing positive feelings.

low happiness high hdi

Unlike the previous case, in this area, with the exception of Luxembourg and South Korea, the pattern is visible at a glance: a lot of Eastern European / Near East countries, a lot of countries recently hit hard by the recession (Greece, the Czech republic), countries affected by ethnic conflicts fuelled by poverty and dissatisfaction with governance (Ukraine, a lot of the former Yugoslavia), countries that hope to join the EU -but are not likely to do so soon; countries that have joined the EU recently (Romania, Bulgarian, Croatia) and former Soviet states.

A lot of flawed democracies (Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece) and hybrid regimes (Bosnia, Albania, Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey); somewhat less represented are outright dictatorships (Iran, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan) and full democracies (Czech Republic, Luxembourg, South Korea). Also, a lot of relatively young democracies; and a lot of countries who perceive their own governments as corrupt (Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Iran in the bottom 30%; with the democratic  Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia not faring much better).

Other common points for these countries may be high unemployment, a relatively educated population, widespread access to Western media,  and where the countries are democratic, low levels of political participation.

Again, happiness is relative: people in Lithuania are not happier than people in Chad; while people in Rwanda are as happy as people in Austria or Ireland; but where someone in Rwanda may compare their situation to the atrocities experienced during the genocide and find the present not so bad after all, someone in Lithuania will compare their standard of living or sense of political belonging to that of someone in Sweden and find it very much lacking.


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