Denmark Fairy Tales: Is Denmark the happiest country because of this? No.

DenmarkPoster2TL; DR Summary

  • Denmark is the happiest country because of an alleged $20/hour minimum wage, 33 hour work week, etc.
  • Is Denmark the world’s happiest country? On one survey, yes. On other surveys, no. Pick your survey!
  • Is the happiest nation rating system based on the items listed on the poster? No. They have little or nothing to do with the rating. The poster uses a logical fallacy.
  • The fictitious and non-existent link between the rating and the alleged reasons are a logical fallacy.
  • And besides, the World Happiness Index never measured “happiness” of anyone.
  • This first post looks only at the ranking of Denmark as the happiest country in the world. This is a long post – sorry!

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More posts in this series

LOGICAL FALLACY

The post asks, “Why is Denmark the happiest country in the world?” and then purports to answer that question by listing several items such as an alleged $20/hour minimum wage and an alleged 33 hour work week as the reasons for “happiest”.

This link is false. Why is it false? Because the happiest nation rating system is not based on the items alleged to make Denmark the happiest nation.

75% of the ranking system is based on six measures:

  • GDP/capita
  • years of life expectancy
  • “social support (as measured by having someone”, such as friends and family, “to count on in times of trouble”),
  • trust (“perceived absence of corruption”)
  • perceived freedom to make choices
  • generosity (how many people donated money in the past 30 days)

GDP/capita sounds like it might be linked to the $20/hour minimum wage – except that Denmark has no minimum wage law.

“Years of life expectancy” sounds like it might be linked to “free  healthcare”, but years of life expectancy is more complex than that. For example, some of the biggest factors in life expectancy are sanitary water and sewer systems, access to childhood vaccination programs, and access to youth public education (not free college tuition), and factors such as genetics.

Studies similar to the RAND Health Insurance Experiment provide evidence that although insurance coverage affects health services, it appears to have small effect on overall population life expectancy

Thus, the measures given as reasons for Denmark ranking #1 are not significant factors in how this happiness index is calculated.

The logical fallacy is that these factors do, in fact, explain the happiest nation rating, when they do not. Logical fallacy is a common trait of propaganda messaging.

IS DENMARK THE WORLD’S HAPPIEST COUNTRY?

The “World Happiness Report” has been issued 4 times. The 2015 report results are shown, below, where Denmark places #3. For 2016, Denmark is at  #1 on their World Happiness chart.

But the World Happiness Index report never defines happiness nor does it measure any individual’s happiness.

Instead, it gathers together a group of statistical data about large groups of people, applies selected weights to the value of each item, plugs all this into their Stat-o-meter and pops out a single number that they pretend measures happiness!

WHAT IS “HAPPINESS” AND “WELL BEING”?

Measuring “happiness” comes from a concept of measuring “Gross domestic happiness” (GDH) instead of, or in addition to, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and GDP per capita. The former is a subjective measure while the latter is considered an objective measure although both are subject to errors particularly in terms of what one decides to measure, and how it is measured.

A good review of the GDH concept and history is available from the Harvard Business Review. As with GDP, what is chosen to be measured influences the result of a happiness survey, and the surveys rely primarily on self-reported data, which can be problematic. A goal of the GDH is to measure society attributes that are independent of money valuations measured in the GDP.

The World Happiness Report is produced by The Earth Institute, which is an academic group focused on environmental degradation with a goal to “guide the world onto a path toward sustainability”. Their happiness reports have been released prior to key UN meetings.

Since “happiness” is a nebulous concept, most surveys use other factors to measure “well-being”.  In fact, the authors of the World Happiness Report never actually define happiness – happiness is whatever the survey respondent feels like defining it as.

Instead, they include measures of income per person, measures of inequality, measures of social security (not U.S. Social Security sense), measures of emotional support networks and so on. These are then weighted and merged together into a single number that the pretend measures “happiness”. Happiness and well-being are not the same thing but the terms are often used interchangeably.

What is happiness?

There is not a single definition nor can there be because happiness is a personal value judgement.

As noted at Stanford’s Plato project, “What one person finds make his or herself happy may not be true for others ” – to ascribe happiness in the well-being sense is to make a value judgment: namely, that the person has whatever it is that benefits a person.[1] If you and I and have different values, then we may well differ about which lives we consider happy.

Happiness is measured in different ways, depending on the survey, producing different survey results.

  • The Earth Institute survey seems to define define happiness as “lives in a place like a Scandinavian” country, thus, countries that are more like Scandinavian countries rank highly. (That is not their intent but is possibly a side effect of how they construct their index. This column, however, suggests this was their specific intent: “Happiness means being a well-adjusted cog in the socialist machine.”)
  • The UN Human Development Index of 2011 did not rank Denmark in the top 10.
  • The Happy Planet Index rates all of Scandinavia poorly.
  • The OECD has a neat web site where you can identify what values are important to you, and then shows you how countries rank based on your own values (and presumed definition of happiness). Here you will find yet another happiness ranking order for countries of the world.

This points to some of the problems with the use of a happiness index.

  • Indexes can be defined to in terms of a desired outcome (e.g. countries like Scandinavian countries are happy therefore countries like Scandinavian countries are happy).
  • Indexes can be defined to promote one’s agenda (Happy Planet Index)
  • Ratings vary greatly between surveys due to the lack of a common definition of “happiness” and how to measure it and due to how agencies weight their metrics (see page 19) “Since the number and nature of the components is a matter of the maker’s preference, it is no surprise that the different indexes give quite different global rankings among nations.
  • The Earth Institute notes that are a number of questions about the validity and usefulness of happiness metrics (see starting on page 17)
  • Other criticisms of the Earth Institute survey are that some populations appear to be genetically pre-disposed (positive personalities have genetic components) which might favor homogeneous populations as found in Scandinavia.
  • The happiness rating runs counter to other metrics such as Denmark having the 2nd highest use of anti-depressant medication in the EU according to the OECD.
  • Until recently, Denmark had one of the highest suicide rates in the world (see Figure 1.1 in http://jech.bmj.com/content/62/5/448.full). The use of anti-depressant medication is one factor (but not the only factor) in the decline in suicides in Denmark.
  • Denmark has the highest incidence of sexual or physical or psychological violence against women of all 28 EU countries, with 52% of women reporting an assault since the age of 15. (See Table 1, Cyber Violence Against Women and Children, the United Nations Broadband Commission on Digital Development; Working Group on Broadband and Gender.)
  • Denmark also has the the highest rating per capita for sex with animals and its population’s average height is the 3rd highest in the world (really!)

Looking at multiple indices, Denmark is not always ranked so highly as a happy country. Danish happiness is at odds with the high use of anti-depressants and high incidence of violence against women, for example.

The authors of the report note that the report is actually about “well being”, which is related to happiness but is not the same as happiness. So why is the report titled “World Happiness Report”? Because “a number of authors… wrote their own books with “happiness” in the title because they or their editors knew that happiness draws more reader interest than does subjective well-being.” (Page 17) and “Happiness has a convening and attention attracting power beyond that of subjective well-being.”

In other words, the entire assessment of Denmark as the happiest country in the world is a successful propaganda mission. This fake happiness ranking was reported widely throughout the world, without question by reporters from every major news outlet, globally.

NORTHERN EUROPE, NORTH AMERICA AND AUSTRALIA ARE EQUALLY “HAPPY”

The 2015 study’s own Figure 2.1 puts Denmark, Canada, United States and many countries as on par with each other in terms of their happiness index:

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With any subjective measure, the accuracy of the measurement and the confidence intervals are large. As shown in the 2015 study’s Figure 2.2, the difference between many countries is small. Thus, residents of many countries are generally happy and we cannot accurately distinguish between many countries – they are nearly the same.

Of the 6 primary factors, the major difference between the United States and Denmark is that U.S. citizens view the U.S. government as corrupt – while Danes view their government as not very corrupt (compare the purple bars, below). This is the major distinguishing factor between the alleged “happiness” measure of the two countries.

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WHAT CAN WE CONCLUDE?

Measuring happiness across cultures is difficult. There are multiple indices that try to measure happiness and they tend to produce very different results.

It is likely desirable to measure what we think of as “well being” and “happiness” and apply it to understanding government policies. However, the concept of a happiness metric is far from a certain metric and its applicability to producing a happier population (and whether that is a good thing) is not yet known.

Is Denmark the world’s happiest country? Based on one highly publicized index, yes. Based on other indices, no. A more accurate statement can be derived from the map, above, showing countries in broad groupings, rather than multi-decimal point accuracy implied by a subjective index. Based on that idea, northern Europe, North America and Australia all rank as happy places. And that sort of kills the idea that we can measure that Denmark is the happiest place on earth.

From their own survey, the main difference between Denmark and the U.S. is that Danes view their country as less corrupt than how U.S. citizens view corruption in their own government.

Propaganda

Surveys of “happiness” can be effective tools for propaganda messaging to promote an agenda. The Earth Institute survey results seem to align with their Institute’s goals just as the The Happy Planet Index results appear to align with their organization’s goals. There is an implication that these metrics are used for propaganda messaging to influence specific outcomes. In other words, the indices are rigged.

Because there are multiple happiness indices with very different rankings, cherry picking comes into play to pick indices to prove whatever you want.

In terms of propaganda, noting that Denmark is the world’s happiest country is a glittering generality – the statement feels good but may not be meaningful.

The propaganda posters assert that Denmark is happy because of an alleged minimum wage (Denmark does not have a national minimum wage law), a 33 hour work week (false claim), free university tuition, free child care, and free health care. These are not the metrics used to measure happiness. Asserting a relationship where there is none is a logical fallacy.

The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has asserted that the U.S. ought to more like Denmark or Sweden or Scandinavia in general. Survey results like this support his messaging, even if the survey result is just a glittering generality contradicted by other data. The version of the poster put out by Occupy Democrats is intended to support the Sander’s campaign memes, but as noted, the poster is a logical fallacy and includes false statements.

Update: The Denmark propaganda messaging has become a key component of the Bernie Sanders campaign as illustrated by this press coverage:

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Update September 2015: This meme has now been established by common culture as a “fact” as it is resurrected as such in this “news” report.

FUTURE POSTS

Future posts will look at:

Text for Search Indexing

Why is the Denmark ranked the happiest country in the world by the United Nations?
$20 minimum wage
33 hour work week
Free University
Free Child Care
Free Health Care

Why is Denmark the happiest country in the world?
$20 minimum wage

33-hour work week

Free university

Free childcare

Free healthcare

Share if America should follow their lead

Occupy Democrats

Denmark v. USA
$21/hr. minimum wage   $7.25/hr. minimum wage
Free healthcare, childcare, college and job training – Healthcare, childcare and college are a luxury, can bankrupt you or saddle you with debt
Paid sick and parental leave – No paid sick/parental leave
Only 6.1% of children live in poverty – 23.1% of children are poor, highest rate in rich world
Ranked #1 happiest country
Ranked #1 country for business
Ranked #1 most unequal rich country
Share if Americans can learn from Denmark!
Occupy Democrats

 

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