When attempting to make sense of the news, comparing different countries can inform how we think about political problems and possible solutions. Yet international comparisons can be quite misleading.
The World Happiness Report, an annual survey that asks people across the world how happy they are, is an illustrative case in point. The 2022 report offers a numerical ranking based on a variety of scores aggregated to express how well respondents believe their life is going.
Yet the ranking is unhelpful for a variety of reasons — including the idea that an individual’s quality of life can be neatly ranked on a scale of one to 10. Moreover, there are issues with collecting data using voluntary self-reporting. For instance, Scandinavian countries consistently rank highest, yet how likely is it that marginalized residents in the poorer neighborhoods of Copenhagen or Mälmo filled in a survey? Then there is the curious choice of vocabulary: Are folks really “happy,” or are they more content? And should we equate affluence with contentment?
Many studies suggest that higher incomes do not correspond to well-being, and even that clinical depression is more prevalent in wealthier countries. These data suggest that an individual’s personal characteristics (such as illness, gender or temperament), family background, work life, and education level may matter more than their material wealth. Considering these factors can, therefore, make comparisons between countries much less informative than they may seem at first sight.
Each of the reasons above should give us caution in how we interpret international comparisons. But perhaps the greatest misstep in comparing nations concerns the artificial units of analysis, such that scale, scope and internal complexity become misaligned; the result is that apples are in danger of being compared to oranges.
Take another common survey topic: public trust in government.
In OECD data from 2020, the Netherlands, where I live, ranked very high on a comparative trust list at 78%. The United States, on the other hand, though still higher than many European countries (e.g., Italy, Greece, Spain), fared poorly at 46.5%. Yet because the comparison focuses on national politics, it oversimplifies the issue of political distrust.
Many Americans who vehemently oppose the federal government, for example, are just as likely to passionately support state, county and municipal governments; indeed, most citizens want their local libraries, infrastructure, schools, fire departments, public transportation and parks to function well.
Conversely, in many European countries there often is more trust in the EU than there is in one’s own national government. Meanwhile, the impressive Dutch figures cited above have taken a dramatic nosedive in the past 18 months.
International comparisons are sometimes both interesting and useful, but we must keep in mind that they often conceal more than they reveal.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael S. Merry is a professor in the faculty of societal and behavioral sciences at the University of Amsterdam. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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