Happiness and the Social Progress Index

by Tamar Hellman
The Social Progress Index is strongly and unsurprisingly related to happiness: people who live in a world of social progress are likely to be happier, and it very well may be that happier people are advocates for better lives and higher social progress. Showing this relationship, though, is tricky: How do we measure happiness, and how much information does happiness give us about the every-day experiences of people? In this blogpost, we examine the relationship of social progress with different measures of happiness, showing the overlap between the two similar concepts as well as highlighting the importance of the multiple components and intricacies beyond happiness that build toward higher social progress.

There are several schools of thoughts on how to measure happiness, including:
• a person’s response to “Are you happy?”
• a self-evaluation of one’s life on a scale of 1-10,
• a complex framework that includes multiple indicators of happiness.

The Social Progress Index is well aligned with these measurements, both on a conceptual and statistical basis. For example, below you can see the relationship between the 2015 Social Progress Index results and Gallup’s life evaluation index, drawn from survey questions on the Gallup World Poll that ask respondents to rate both their current life and their future life from 0 (the worst possible life) to 10 (the best possible life). The 2016 World Happiness Report uses Gallup’s life evaluation measure to rate and discuss levels of happiness across countries.

Gallup categorizes its life evaluation results into three categories: thriving, struggling and suffering (for full definitions of these categories, see: “Understanding How Gallup Uses the Cantril Scale”). Above, at the aggregate level of the Social Progress Index, we see that in countries where a higher percentage of respondents evaluated their life as thriving, there is also a higher level of social progress. The opposite is true, as well: social progress is lower in countries where a higher percentage of respondents evaluated their lives as struggling or suffering. However, as you click through the three dimensions and twelve components that comprise the Social Progress Index, the relationship is not as clear, suggesting that life evaluation, as a subjective measurement, may not tell the full story behind social progress.

There are more complex measures of happiness, though, that like the Social Progress Index, account for multiple dimensions of progress. Perhaps the most well-known of these measures is the Gross National Happiness Index, based on a framework developed in Bhutan to measure national happiness. The Index, conceptualized in the 1970s, has significantly increased discussion of happiness in the context of economic development. Its Bhutanese supporters helped introduce a United National resolution, adopted in 2011, that invited member nations to use a national measurement of happiness as guidance for their policies and recognized that “the gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.” (For full text, see Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 July 2011.) Though the resolution inspired many similar indices, the Gross National Happiness Index has been most notably applied, measured, and adopted as the main development indicator in Bhutan.

The Bhutanese Gross National Happiness Index, both in its policy objective to look beyond GDP and its framework structure, is similar to the Social Progress Index and an important contribution to development. It is based on a Buddhist philosophy of development and comprises four pillars – political, economic, cultural, and environmental – and nine domains. These domains, like the 12 components that comprise the Social Progress Index, cover several aspects of progress that are measured by indicators on health, education, personal rights, environment, and more. The table below shows that both indices focus on aspects of health and education, and that there is some conceptual overlap between Cultural Diversity & Resilience in the Gross National Happiness Index and the Social Progress Index’s Tolerance & Inclusion component, as well as between Good Governance and the Personal Rights component.


There are notable differences between the two indices, however, both in terms of how the aspects mentioned above are measured and the type of information they convey. The Gross National Happiness Index is context-specific and survey-based. For example, the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness Index includes indicators on the number of days spent participating in social and cultural activities, artisan skills, knowledge of local festivals and frequency of prayer and meditation that are specifically relevant to Bhutan. More broadly applicable indicators that overlap with those of the Social Progress Index – such as literacy, quality of water, and access to a mobile phone – are measured by self-ratings on set scales or yes/no answers. In contrast, most of the Social Progress Index indicators are drawn from official data sources with broad country coverage (including the World Health Organization, World Bank, and United Nations) and are not based on individual responses. The latter approach enables a Social Progress Index user to understand the relative performance of countries on social progress, rather than self-reported experiences.

Additionally, the Gross National Happiness Index partially relies on inputs for happiness (e.g., political and cultural participation, time spent working and sleeping), while the Social Progress Index is outcome-based. Though both input and outcomes are relevant, outcomes point to achievements that matter to people’s lives while inputs require an index user to make assumptions about effective actions and policy changes. For example, number of days participating in socio-cultural activities speaks to a person’s involvement in society to an extent, but says little about how participation can be improved. In contrast, information on the the accessibility, quantity, and openness of cultural activities available could lead to pointed policies against discrimination that improve the integration of marginalized members of society.

A final important distinction is the inclusion of economic inputs in the Gross National Happiness Index. The Living Standard dimension of Gross National Happiness includes indicators on income and assets, which are purposely excluded from the Social Progress Index. Though economic measures undeniably interact with social progress, they are distinct and behave differently; combining the two types of measures confounds their relationship. Through our research, we have found that economic performance can only explain social progress to a point, beyond that point there are other more effective perspectives to consider in improving social progress. The figure below shows countries’ performance on social progress relative to their GDP per capita, suggesting that in countries where GDP per capita is higher than $10,000, variation in social progress is much more drastic and not linearly related to GDP. As such, we separate the influence of material possessions and income from measures of social performance.

Click on the image below to view at full size.


As part of the movement to create a happier life for everyone, the Social Progress Index offers a holistic assessment of the health of societies across the world and sheds light on the issues where greater investment and collaboration can lead to greater impact. Its comprehensive framework strongly aligns with other measures of happiness, but it can provide a unique lens on areas of success and areas of weakness both at national and subnational levels.

To explore our 2015 Social Progress Index data, click here.

Information on subnational efforts can be found here.