Striving for Happiness in the Arab World

by John Hood

As protests continue to rock the brutal dictatorships and petty tyrannies of the Middle East, the Gallup Organization has done some fascinating work on public opinion in the Arab world that sheds some light on these events.

Gallup is one of a number of polling firms and social scientists at work in the emerging field of happiness studies. The idea is to find ways to probe the extent of happiness or life satisfaction among certain populations and then seek causal explanations. Gallup uses a decades-old survey tool called the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. It asks respondents to imagine a ladder with rungs ranging from 0 at the bottom, representing the worst possible life, to 10 at the top, representing the best possible life. Respondents are then asked to describe what rung they see themselves on at the time, as well as what rung they expect to be on in five years. As you can see, the tool is designed to measure current life satisfaction as well as optimism about the future.

In general, Gallup researchers have found, countries with prosperous and growing economies have higher average scores on the Cantril scale than countries with poor or stagnant economies. But in recent surveys among Arab countries, rising GDP has not been associated with rising Cantril scores. In Tunisia, for example, per capita GDP rose by an impressive 32 percent from 2005 to 2010, but the share of Tunisians considered “thriving” on the Cantril scale — at least a 7 on the ladder — fell from 24 percent as recently as 2008 to 14 percent in 2010. Similarly, per capita GDP in Egypt has risen by 34 percent over the past five years while the share of Egyptians scored as thriving has fallen by nearly two-thirds.

Why the disparity? Rising expectations is surely one factor. As these countries grew economically and their people became increasingly connected to those in other countries with freer political systems, many became increasingly frustrated. But based on recent press coverage, I’d wager that another big factor is inflation. While these economies grew, prices for basic commodities also grew. Many protesters across the Arab world seem to be at least as angry about the cost of food, fuel, housing, and other goods as they are about the lack of personal freedom or democratic governance.

One final note from the Gallup research: If you look at the Cantril scores across the Arab world, there seems to be an interesting correlation with the level of unrest. In the oil-rich peninsular countries of Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, the thriving percentage is in the 40s and low 50s — not much different than in many developed countries, including the U.S. But in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon, only a fifth or fewer of the population is considered thriving. And on the peninsula, the one country with a low score is Bahrain, at 27 percent.