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Finland is the happiest country in the world – again. Or is it?

01 Apr 2021
Finland is the happiest country in the world – again. Or is it?

Recently, news outlets across the world announced: Finland ranked happiest country in the world – again. This information is based on the World Happiness Report 2021 which uses data from the Gallup World Survey.But is it true?Similar to the 1950s household surveys that questioned only the male breadwinner and projected his feelings to the rest of the society, this poll misses a quarter of the world’s population – children under 15 years old.

So, do children in Finland and other countries agree with adults? Not particularly. There are several studies of children that ask similar questions to the one in the Gallup World Poll. These are all schools-based surveys and have some sampling limitations. But the picture is consistent.

  • The Children’s Worlds survey covered 35 countries/territories across four continents in 2016 to 2019. Finland ranked 15th out 35 countries among children aged 10 years old, and 16th out of 30 at 12 years old. Albania ranked top at both ages.
  • The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children covered children aged 11, 13 and 15 in 45 European countries/regions plus Canada in 2017 to 2018. Finland ranked 26th among 11-year-olds, 14th among 13- year-olds and 13th among 15-year-olds. North Macedonia ranked highest at 11 years old. Kazakhstan ranked highest at 13 and 15.
  • The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 asked 15 year olds in 70 mostly high-income countries/territories about their life satisfaction. Finland ranked 19th. Kazakhstan was 1st.
  • In fact there is very little link between children’s and adults’ life satisfaction across countries.

    These differences are not restricted to Finland alone. The chart below shows average life satisfaction scores from the Gallup World Poll and PISA for adults and for adolescents aged 15 years old in 64 countries with matching data. Children’s and adults average life satisfaction are unrelated across these countries.Certainly there are some countries – such as Costa Rica – that have high life satisfaction among both groups; and some countries – such as Turkey – that have low life satisfaction among both. But the UK has high adult life satisfaction (8th out of 64) and low adolescent life satisfaction (63rd out of 64). Albania has low adult life satisfaction but high adolescent life satisfaction. Finland is top of the league table for adult life satisfaction but much closer to the middle for children.

    What explains these differences?One of the doubts often raised about international comparisons of life satisfaction relates to linguistic and cultural effects. But these can’t really be a major factor here when almost the same question is asked of different age groups in the same country. One of the factors that has been linked with adult life satisfaction is national income. It is fairly clear from the examples in the diagram, and other analysis has confirmed, that this is not really the case for children. It is still not clear what can explain the different country rankings for children but one hypothesis is that high child life satisfaction is linked to the quality of social relationships.Two key messages come out of these comparisons:

    1. The factors that contribute to children’s life satisfaction are probably different to those for adults and we need to understand this better.
    2. We should be careful about ranking countries only on adults’ views - ignoring children’s views about their lives misses out on a quarter of the voices that are worth hearing.

    Gwyther Rees is Social and Economic Policy Research Manager at UNICEF Innocenti. Anna Gromada is Social and Economic Policy Consultant at UNICEF Innocenti.