Things Are Better Than We Think...

Ready for some good news before the Holidays? Here it is: The world is happier than you think, and things probably are not as bad as they seem.

What do I mean? Take a look at the chart here from the excellent site Our World in Data. It compares how happy people are with how happy they think other people are. The horizontal axis shows how many respondents say they’re “very happy” or “rather happy.” The vertical axis shows what they think other people in their country will say. If people are generally accurate, the data points should lie along the 45-degree line. But as you can see, in every single country, people underestimate how happy other people really are.

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Granted, Canada and Norway do pretty well. They guess that 60% of their compatriots are happy, but that’s still well below the actual number. In South Korea, 90% of people surveyed say they are happy. Fantastic! And yet, South Koreans guess that only 24% of their fellow citizens are happy. That’s a powerful misperception.

In its latest survey of 38 countries, Ipsos Mori found that on many dimensions, we think things are worse than they really are. For example, very few countries think their murder rate has declined since 2000 -- even though in most countries it has. All countries overestimate how many teenage births there are. All countries overestimate how many people have diabetes. And all countries but three underestimate how many people report being in good health.

There are plenty of other misperceptions too. When people are asked to name the three countries with the highest alcohol consumption, Russia is an overwhelming favorite – appearing in 43% of responses. But Russia is number seven. The top three consumers of alcohol are really Belgium, France and Germany. Very few people get that right – including residents of Belgium!

But getting back to happiness, it’s curious that we can feel happy ourselves but believe that others aren’t. According to Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy of Our World in Data, there’s a well-documented phenomenon where people are positive about their own prospects but negative about those of others (That’s why most newlyweds believe their marriages will last forever, even when they’re presented with the statistic that 40% of marriages end in divorce!) 

A similar phenomenon makes us feel optimistic about ourselves and our own local areas, but pessimistic about faraway places and the nation or world at large. It seems that because the world is complex and hard to grasp, we formulate opinions by piecing together the most recent things we’ve heard – and these often are the bad but ephemeral events from the news.

Unfortunately, our news has gotten so complicated lately. The Economist recently reported that what traditionally has stressed out Americans most is work. But in 2017, it was politics. What’s more, social media has been making things worse – fanning the flames, if you will.  And while I have nothing against the news or social media per se, perhaps we should remember that we all carry around misperceptions borne of our own biases and influences.

So let us remember our misperceptions as we go into the New Year. Let us remember the happiness levels shown in the chart. And let us also remember that we live in a time of greater peace and less poverty than ever before in history. Happy Holidays.