Can Money Buy Happiness?

How Should We Measure Happiness? Why does Objective Metrics Fail to Predict Happiness?

Is GDP per capita a good metric for measuring happiness? This research question has been debated for decades, and the two opposite camps have been soliciting empirical evidence and sound arguments. Thus, there are different indices of happiness, either measured by objective metrics, including GDP per capita, or by subjective metrics, such as simply asking how happy you are.

Happiness is one of the most subjective perceptions, which can hardly be quantified. However, asking people how happy they are may not be useful because different people can have a different level of happiness at different times, and different people can have a very different interpretation of the level of happiness. Summarising their responses by an average figure may not be meaningful. That is why objective metrics are more commonly used in academics.

For example, the World Happiness Index is estimated by weighted averaging six objective metrics, viz. 1. Log GDP per capita, 2. Social support, 3. Healthy life expectancy at birth, 4. Freedom to make life choices, 5. Generosity, 6. Perceptions of corruption. It is compiled by renowned scholars John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs (2019). Figures 1 and 2 show the top and bottom Ranking of World Happiness from the 2019 Report.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 1 Top 17 Ranking of Happiness 2016–2018. Source: Helliwell et al. (2019)
Image for post
Image for post
Figure 2 Ranking 138–156 of World Happiness Index 2016–2018. Source: Helliwell et al. (2019)

Similarly, the World Happiness Index also includes GDP per capita sub-metric (the dark brown bars in Figures 1 and 2). The Regression results show a highly significant and positive effect of GDP per capita on Happiness, as shown in Figure 3.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 3 Regression Results of World Happiness Index. Source: Helliwell et al. (2019)

However, the effects of GDP on happiness are intriguing, as it is found to be valid cross-sectionally, but invalid longitudinally, without knowing why. That is the Easterlin Paradox. It states that “at a point in time happiness varies directly with income both among and within nations, but over time happiness does not trend upward as income continues to grow.” (https://esrc.ukri.or)

On Nov 26, I met Professor Richard Easterlin who gave a keynoted speech at a seminar organized by the Business School of the University of Auckland, titled Shaping Futures: The Wellbeing Economics Panel Discussion. The panel members debated about whether GDP per capita can measure happiness accurately or not, and most of the members disagreed with the statement!

Hopefully, I will have more chances to chat with Professor Easterlin in New Zealand soon as both of us will stay there for a while. New Zealanders are well known to be caring about well beings and got a very high ranking in the World Happiness Index 2019 (it ranks no. 8 as shown in Figure 1), and the GDP per capita of New Zealand is also very high (It ranks 21 in the IMF 2018 GDP per capita index). New Zealand seems to be a perfect example supporting the hypothesis that GDP per capita is a good metric for happiness.

However, the recent social unrest in Hong Kong is a very strong case that refutes it! It is a very important case study that I would recommend scholars who are interested in studying happiness to study the Hong Kong case. Before the Anti-extradition Bill Movement in June 2019, almost all commentaries and global rankings of Hong Kong were favorable and promising. Hong Kong ranks the top 10 in GDP per capita (number 8 in the IMF 2018 ranking), and life expectancy in Hong Kong is one of the longest in the world. The city has been praised as the freest economy in the world for 25 years by the US think-tank the Heritage Foundation. People of Hong Kong are generous in general, and got a very good ranking in the corruption perception index (HK ranks no. 14 and NZ ranks no. 2 in 2018). According to the 6 objective metrics, Hong Kong people must be very happy if these metrics are correct.

However, Hong Kong ranks much lower (no. 76 in 2016–2018) in the World Happiness Index. Figure 4 shows the scores in the 6 components. It shows that all the 6 components (the first 6 bars) are relatively longer the counterparts, the only component that is much shorter is the Dystopia + Residue (purple bar). I interpret it as the errors of the measurement. In other words, there are some important missing variables in explaining the happiness reported.

Image for post
Image for post
Figure 4 Ranking 55–76 of the World Happiness Index 2016–2018. Source: Helliwell et al. (2019)

I think the 6 components in the World Happiness Index only measure the current status of the country or city as a whole, without taking into account the future perspective. That is the difference between objective and subjective metrics. Objectively, we can only measure what had happened. But we can never measure something to happen in the future. That is UNCERTAINTY!

Yet, people in a country would form a common perception of the coming future based on the past trend and the latest information. When people cannot see a prosperous, healthy, free and meaningful future, they can become very unhappy even though they are rich at present. In a nutshell, happiness is not about the past and present, it is about the future.

In 2017, my team published a book titled “Choosing the Future: An Alternative Proposal to the Hong Kong 2030+” (In Chinese). I wrote a preface to foretell “The Six Coming Crises in Hong Kong” (Yiu, 2017). Unfortunately, it did not cause public concerns. My predictions have also been repeatedly criticized by the HK Government as alarmist and are therefore ignored. However, a year and a half later, some of the forecasts come true.

With such a gloomy future, it explains why people in Hong Kong are so unhappy even though they are rich. All the objective metrics of happiness cannot predict it and all the international organizations cannot foretell the crisis in Hong Kong are probably because of the fact that most of the information and figures are produced by the government or pro-establishment organizations. They have their strong intentions to tell the goods and cover the bads, as it is reflecting their performance.

Interestingly, the subjective metric of happiness seems to be the best predictor of the Hong Kong crisis. People tell you that they are unhappy, but all your measurements show that they should be happy. Then your measurements must be wrong!


John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs (2019) World Happiness Report 2019, UN.

Yiu, C.Y. (2017) The Six Coming Crises in Hong Kong, a Preface in the “Choosing the Future: An Alternative Proposal to the Hong Kong 2030+” (In Chinese), April, Land Education Fund. . Website:

Written by

ecyY is the Founder of Real Estate Development and Building Research & Information Centre REDBRIC

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store