It was Bhutan which first famously came up with the concept of Gross National Happiness. Back in 1972, the then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck asked why countries were obsessed with GDP.

"Why are we so obsessed and focused with gross domestic product?" he asked a journalist inquiring about the country's economy. "Why don't we care more about gross national happiness?"

Perhaps wanting to get away from somewhat gloomy national economic measures, British Prime Minister David Cameron last November announced that the UK would start to measure and monitor national happiness, and the Office for National Statistics has been tasked with producing a regular "Happiness Index". But how exactly do we measure happiness, and what features of our national and personal environment affect it? While looking for stories for the Leisure Tourism Database, I came across one recent paper which uses international survey data to take a snapshot of happiness across different countries and relate it to quantity and quality of leisure time. Among the findings: more time on the internet makes us miserable.

The study published on the Social Science Research Network by Wang and Wong uses the 2007 survey from the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) for the analysis, which provides data on approximately 48,000 respondents from 33 countries/regions. The dependent variable "happiness" is based on answers to the question "How happy or unhappy are you in general these days?" The paper analyses answers to the question in relation to personal and national factors including multiple measures of leisure: (1) leisure time (or the lack of – quantified by weekly working hours); (2) leisure activities; (3) leisure satisfaction; and (4) the meaning of leisure to individuals. The analysis finds that leisure does play a significant role in affecting happiness.

In general, individuals who feel that they establish useful contacts and develop important skills often feel happier than others. Similarly, individuals who feel that their leisure activities enable them to be who they are and help them to strengthen relationships with others tend to report a higher happiness score

Different leisure activities also have different impact on happiness. Out of the 13 leisure activities covered in the survey, six have robust effect on the level of happiness, including shopping, reading books, attending cultural events, getting together with relatives, listening to music, attending sporting events, and spending time on the internet. Most of these six activities are associated with higher level of happiness, with attending sporting events and listening to music having the largest positive impact [clearly the survey can't have talked to fans of my football team, where in the last season games invariably induced misery as we slumped to relegation!]. Spending time on the internet was the one activity negatively associated with happiness. The regression results show that increased frequency of spending time on the internet decreases the probability of an individual feeling very happy and increases the probability of an individual feeling not at all happy.

The paper also gives a means of comparing both leisure activities and happiness between countries. Out of 13 leisure activities, Cyprus and Switzerland appear six times in the top-five countries lists, followed by Dominican Republic and Croatia which appear five and four times in the top five lists, respectively. Cyprus is among the top five for: (1) watch TV, (2) go to movies, (3) get together with relatives, (4) play cards, (5) do handicrafts, and (6) spend time on internet. For Switzerland, the list of most common activities includes: (1) read books, (2) attend cultural events, (3) play cards, (4) listen to music, (5) sport and gym, and (6) do handicrafts.

The study gives a quantitative measure of happiness by applying 4 to the answer "very happy" to the question of how happy people feel in general, 3 to "fairly happy", 2 to "not very happy", and 1 to "not at all happy". The average value of happiness in the sample is 3.07 (with a standard deviation of 0.711). About 26.5% of all respondents feel "very happy", 56.5% "fairly happy", 14.5% "not very happy", and only 2.5% "not at all happy". The happiest country in the sample based on the simple average of respondents' answers is Ireland, with an average level of happiness of 3.44, and the least happy country is Russia, with an average happiness of 2.6. The United States ranks number four (3.31) following Ireland, Mexico (3.37), and Switzerland (3.32).

Of course, happiness is not just about work and leisure. The analysis finds that people feel happy when they have excellent health condition, have high family income, are married (living with spouse), and have children in the household; nothing very surprising there. Females on average report a higher happiness score than males, controlling for other personal characteristics. At the national level, unemployment rate has a negative impact on individual happiness and political stability has a positive impact on happiness.

The paper can be downloaded from the Social Science Research Network from the link below.


Wang, Miao and Wong, M. C. Sunny, A Snapshot of Happiness and Leisure across Countries: Evidence from International Survey Data (May 23, 2011). Available at SSRN:

Other external links

Office for National Statistics – measuring national well-being

Guardian datablog – comparing wellbeing across Europe

New Economics Foundation – national accounts of wellbeing


1 Comment

  1. Vera Barbosa on 15th July 2011 at 12:10 pm

    I’m liking your blog today David and have posted it on my daughter’s facebook page because she spends far too much time on the internet. I’m sure she’ll disagree with the results though!

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