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World Happiness Report: Why we might be measuring happiness wrong

Family at sunset holding hands
Photo: Arne Trautmann/Mostphotos

Many of us know that Finland is steadily ranked as the happiest country in the world. The basis for this is the annual World Happiness Report, which is based on a simple question about happiness asked to people around the world. However, a new study led by Lund University in Sweden suggests that it makes people think more about power and wealth.

Using the same question to measure happiness over time and cultures, is arguably a simple and fair way to compare results on a global scale – no easy task, after all. How happy are countries around the world really? The question at the center of the World Happiness Report is known as The Cantril Ladder:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

A new experimental study involving 1,500 adults in the UK has examined how people actually interpret that question. The results show that it often brings to mind concepts of wealth and power. This might not be how most of us would define happiness and well-being. 

“The risk is that we are measuring a narrow, wealth and power-oriented form of well-being, rather than broader definitions of happiness”, says August Nilsson, PhD student and first author.

When the researchers tweaked the Cantril question, for example by replacing “best possible life” with “most harmonious life”, this changed the results, making the respondents think less of power and wealth.

Previous research has shown that The Cantril Ladder reflects people’s income levels and social status to a larger degree than other well-being metrics. The current study adds more evidence that perhaps the simple but powerful question could be complemented in the future.

“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. It is particularly relevant to understand how people interpret happiness questions, since how happy someone is and how they define happiness can’t be determined by a researcher but by people themselves”, concludes August Nilsson.

About the study:

In an experiment involving 1,500 individuals in the UK, the researchers examined how individuals think about The Cantril Ladder compared to differently phrased questions.

The researchers found that people associate the Cantril Ladder question with power and wealth much more than with the other questions. For example, of all the words people used to interpret the Cantril Ladder (including ‘stop’ words with little meaning), 17% were power and money words.

When the researchers removed the ladder analogy from the question, they found that the power and money language was reduced to 11%, and when removing the bottom vs top description of the scale it was further reduced to 7%. For these questions, people still described money, but in the form of “financial security” and “enough money” rather than in terms of “wealth, rich, upper class” as was the case for the Cantril Ladder.

Also, when the question was re-phrased by replacing “number 10 represents the best life for you” with “number 10 represents the most harmonious life for you”, this resulted in less thoughts of power and wealth (5%), and more thoughts of broader well-being - including relationships, work-life balance, and health.  

Link to the article in Scientific Reports:  The Cantril Ladder elicits thoughts about power and wealth