Are Tech-Savvy Countries Happier?

Guest author Kim Gaskins is the director of content development and lead writer for Latitude, an international research consultancy.

In the developed world, even the most passionate technology proponents sometimes find themselves wondering if being constantly “plugged in” means leading a less fulfilling existence. The verdict is still out on that one. But for most of the world,  the relationship between happiness and technology is highly positive.

That’s not utopian tech evangelism—it’s the result of a cross-referencing of a survey on national happiness with the state of each country’s technical development. For the statistically minded, the correlation is +0.72, on a scale from -1 to +1. Mind you, that doesn’t mean technology causes people to be happy. There are plenty of other factors at play—notably, the fact that technologically advanced nations also tend to be wealthier. But the strength of the relationship is nevertheless intriguing.

Clap Along If You Know What Happiness Is To You

The interactive visualization above displays nations according to well-established measures of “happiness” and “techiness.”

  • The “happiness” measure is derived from self-reported answers to one simple prompt: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” (Source: Gallup World Poll / Happy Planet Index)
  • “Techiness” is derived from a few metrics, including access to technology (e.g., mobile phone subscriptions, percentage of households with Internet, etc.), intensity of use, and skills (education levels, etc.). (Source: ICT Development Index)

Some noteworthy trends emerged.

The way a country governs technology says a lot about the general happiness of its people. The Nordic countries rank high on both happiness and technology. By 2012, more than 87% of people living in this region had access to high-speed Internet. These countries were also leaders in LTE wireless technology, with approximately half of Sweden’s population living in places with 4G coverage. Overall, countries scoring highly on “techiness” tend to have a regulatory authority that provides unbiased information, protects consumer interests, and encourages a free, competitive market. Relatedly, it’s been shown that heightened trust and high-quality governance are an important part of what makes these countries the happiest in the world.

Rapid digital “acceleration” aligns with rising happiness. Many Latin American nations demonstrate high happiness but relatively low “techiness”; however, a look at trending data from prior years indicates that both happiness and techiness have been simultaneously on the rise for countries like Venezuela and Brazil. Between 2011 and 2012, Latin America saw a significant increase in both access to and use of technology, largely due to rapid mobile adoption. Though this region still has a way to go with its technology, the sense of accelerating digital progress may be cause for optimism.

Acute economic or political trouble has a big impact on happiness. Countries that stand out as technologically advanced but low on happiness—Bahrain, Hungary and Portugal—have experienced instability in the past few years, related to political unrest or having been hit hard by the global recession.

The concept of happiness is complex and likely impossible to quantify in any precise way; it’s a largely subjective experience that differs widely across cultures. For example, countries like Japan which are modern and advanced show only mediocre happiness scores—but studies have suggested that Japanese people may deem it less appropriate than Canadians, for example, to express extreme joy, causing their scores to appear lower in comparison.

Overall, there appear to be at least two potential opportunities for countries that may be related to its people’s happiness: improve access to technology and, once the technological infrastructure is in place, cultivate trust, transparency and freedom in how it’s regulated and advanced.

It’s also worth thinking about technology as something more involved than just hardware or software. A mobile phone in itself doesn’t make someone happy; the way it enables communication, socialization, learning, productivity or some other extension of human capabilities does.

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