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Data visualization: Have the world’s happiest countries changed over time?
27 Aug, 2015 - Lachlan James


By Eshan Wickrema and Lachlan James

You know how the saying goes: Nothing is forever. Like all things in life, change is inevitable. Those of us who have comfort and power today may not tomorrow. Likewise, those battling away on ‘Struggle Street’ will hopefully thrust their way into better prosperity at some stage.

In our last data blog – Data visualization uncovers world’s happiest countries, we used Business Intelligence software and data visualization capabilities to display the results of the 2015 UN World Happiness Report. The ‘Happiness Index’, upon which the report is based, comprises six key variables that contribute to the total happiness score of each country assessed. For the details, GO HERE >

We identified the world’s ‘happiest’ and ‘unhappiest’ countries – Switzerland (7.587) and Togo (2.839), and found a number of strong correlations between the happiness scores of each country and their relative location and wealth.


But, what we didn’t find out was how those rankings had changed over time.

So, let’s compare results from 2012’s inaugural World Happiness Report to the latest data published in the 2015 study. Is your country moving forwards or backwards?


Change in global happiness by country 2005 – 2014

Note: The first report (2012) comprised data from a collection process that began back in 2005, with data from the current 2015 report being collected between 2012 and 2014.

Insights
  • Between the release of the 2012 and 2015 World Happiness Reports, the happiness scores of countries have moved within a fairly moderate band (-1.470 to 1.121).
  • Countries that have experienced the biggest declines in their happiness scores are largely grouped in Africa, Southern Europe and Southern Asia
    • Notable outliers include:
      • Northern Europe: Finland (-0.266) and Denmark (-0.399)
      • Asia: Japan (-0.380)
      • North America: US (-0.245) and Honduras (-0.458)
  • Countries that have experienced the biggest increases in their happiness ratings are mainly concentrated in South America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia
    • Prominent outliers include:
      • Africa: Zimbabwe (1.056), Sierra Leone (0.901), Liberia (0.870) and Zambia (0.715)
      • North America: Nicaragua (1.121), Haiti (0.764) and Mexico (0.634)
Shifts in happiness scores appear to be connected to location
As identified in our previous blog post on the topic, there appears to be a discernable link between shifts in happiness per country and their relative vicinity to other countries. That is, just as countries with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ happiness scores based on the 2015 report were generally clustered together, so too are countries with positive or negative changes in their happiness ranking.

While changes to the happiness scores of individual countries were kept within a reasonably narrow range (-1.470 to 1.121), there were some fairly discernable patterns.

Generally speaking, countries that endured the largest deterioration in happiness scores could be found in Africa, Southern Europe and Southern Asia. There’s a particularly noticeable cluster stretching from Southern Asia (starting with India) and moving South, across the Middle East (including Egypt) and over to Spain. Countries whose fortunes improved between the release of the 2012 and 2015 World Happiness Reports (those that enjoyed the biggest increase in their happiness ratings) were predominantly grouped in South America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

This clustering effective makes some sort of sense at a fundamental, common sense, level. Views, outlooks and expectations, which impact the way people perceive their relative state of happiness, are often based on cultural norms that span particular geographies and obviously transcend the borders of individual countries. That, and neighboring countries also often experience the same positive or negative impacts – be they economic-based, social, political or natural phenomena (think floods, drought, etc). Therefore, it’s easy to see how most of the specific criteria that combine to generate the happiness index – GDP per capita, Social support, Healthy life expectancy, Freedom to make life choices, Generosity and Perceptions of corruption – are often linked by location.

However, there will obviously be individual occurrences and events that directly impact the specific fortunes, or ‘happiness’, of one particular country. Amongst regions that had generally experienced the most amount of positive change in their happiness scores, from the publication of the 2012 report to the latest version in 2015, Finland (-0.266), Denmark (-0.399), Japan (-0.380), the US (-0.245) and Honduras (-0.458) experienced notable reductions in their happiness scores. Conversely, within geographic areas that had generally experienced the biggest negative changes in happiness rankings, Zimbabwe (1.056), Sierra Leone (0.901), Liberia (0.870), Zambia (0.715), Nicaragua (1.121), Haiti (0.764) and Mexico (0.634) registered significant increases in their happiness scores.

Potential explanations for these outliers, for example, could be the well-publicized stagnation of Japan’s economy, or the continued de-escalation of civil strife in Sierra Leone (although one feels that if the data set had been fresh enough to capture the recent Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone’s citizens may have been decidedly less ‘happy’).

So, let’s zoom in a little closer, and use some segmentation to test the idea that change in happiness ratings has often occurred in geographic clusters of countries.


Change in global happiness by continent 2005 – 2014

Hint: Use the filter button to change which continent is displayed on the chart

Insights
  • Africa had 12 countries that experienced improved happiness ratings, and 18 countries that experienced diminished happiness ratings
    • Africa experienced a collective negative change in happiness ratings of -0.509
  • Asia had 19 countries that experienced enhanced happiness ratings, and 12 countries that experienced reduced happiness ratings
    • Asia experienced a collective positive change in happiness ratings of 1.93
  • Europe had 20 countries that experienced heightened happiness ratings, and 19 countries that experienced lower happiness ratings
    • Europe experienced a collective negative change in happiness ratings of -0.934
  • North America had six countries that experienced improved happiness ratings, and six countries that experienced lesser happiness ratings
    • North America experienced a collective positive change in happiness ratings of 1.202
  • South America had nine countries that experienced enhanced happiness ratings, and just one country (Venezuela) that experienced a diminished happiness rating
    • South America experienced a collective positive change in happiness ratings of 5.82
Proximity to other countries vs continent of origin
The grouping of countries with positive or negative change in their respective happiness scores has more to do with which other countries they share a border – as opposed to which continent they belong.

For example, countries in Southern Europe experienced some of the biggest declines in their happiness scores, while countries in Eastern Europe experienced some of the biggest increases in their happiness ratings. Similarly, countries in Southern Asia experienced some of the biggest declines in their happiness scores, while countries in Central Asia experienced some of the biggest increases in their happiness ratings.

Nonetheless, assessing the collective fortunes of each country by continent does provide some interesting argumentative fodder. For example, South America had nine countries that experienced enhanced happiness ratings, and just one country (Venezuela) that experienced a diminished happiness rating. South America therefore experienced the biggest positive collective change in happiness ratings (5.82).

But, irrespective of location-based trends, which individual countries have encountered the biggest positive and biggest negative changes to their happiness scores from the first report in 2012 to the most recent report in 2015?


Change in world happiness ratings 2005 – 2014 (global top 10 and bottom 10)


Insights
  • Nicaragua boasts the biggest positive change to its happiness rating compared to any other country (1.121)
    • The 10 countries with the biggest positive change to their happiness index are arguably all ‘developing’
      • Four countries from South America (Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Chile) and three from Africa (Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Liberia) made the cut
  • Greece has endured the biggest decline to its happiness rating compared to any other country (-1.470)
    • Africa is the only continent to have at least three countries in both the top 10 most positively changed and top 10 most negatively changed world happiness ratings
    • No countries from North America or South America feature amongst the 10 countries with the biggest negative change to their happiness index
Upon closer inspection: Africa experiences the best and worst of change
The stats are in: Nicaragua boasts the biggest positive change to its happiness rating compared to any other country (1.121). Interestingly, it is the only country from North America to feature in the top 10 countries regarding either positive or negative change to happiness ratings when comparing results from the 2012 and 2015 studies.

With four countries from South America (Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Chile) and three from Africa (Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Liberia) making up the majority of the top 10 positions on the positive change chart, it’s fair to say that the countries with the biggest positive change to their happiness index are predominantly ‘developing’ nations.

On the other end of the scale, Greece has endured the biggest decline to its happiness rating compared to any other country (-1.470). This negative shift can presumably be attributed to its increasingly precarious economy and resultant political instability and social unrest. Similarly, extreme political upheaval in Egypt – stemming from the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, which saw the overthrow of Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak – meant it suffered the second biggest hit to its happiness rating (-1.231).

But, with Africa the most strongly represented continent among the 10 countries to suffer the biggest hit to their happiness index (Senegal, Rwanda, Egypt and Central African Republic), the story of this data set seems to be Africa.

Africa is the only continent to have at least three countries in both top 10 lists for most positive and most negative change when comparing results from the initial 2012 World Happiness Report and the latest 2015 World Happiness Report.


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