What the World Happiness Report doesn’t see: The sociocultural contours of wellbeing in northern Tanzania


  • Michael Kaufman Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute
  • Andrew M. Guest
  • Blandina T. Mmbaga
  • Prosper A. Mbelwa
  • Julie E. Hyatt
  • Declare Mushi
  • Joanitha Tibendelana
  • Paul Y. O. Saing'eu
  • Elizabeth F. Msoka-Bright
  • Amina Swalele
  • Joackim Kessy




This paper presents a mixed methods approach to understanding wellbeing in the Kilimanjaro region of northern Tanzania—a country consistently ranked by the World Happiness Report as one of the least happy in the world.  A primary objective is to demonstrate how qualitative data offering bottom-up perspectives on wellbeing offer a necessary complement to quantitative self-report measures, allowing for more nuanced cultural understandings of lived experience and wellbeing that recognize diversity both globally and locally. The research contextualized responses to standardized life evaluations (including the Cantril ladder question used by the World Happiness Report) through observations and interviews along with culturally sensitive measures of emotional experience.  Findings show Kilimanjaro to have more positive life evaluations than Tanzania as a whole, and significant within-region demographic variation driven particularly by lower levels of wellbeing for nonprofessional women compared with nonprofessional men and professionals.  In part because such demographic groups were often unfamiliar with standardized self-report measures, it was only through interviews, case studies, and culturally sensitive reports of emotional experience that we were able to recognize the diverse and nuanced life circumstances which individuals and groups were navigating and how those circumstances interacted with wellbeing.  Drawing on the example of nonprofessional women for illustration, we describe how key sociocultural factors – particularly, family stability, parenting circumstances, social relationships, and meeting life course expectations -- intersect with economic realities to create varied experiences of wellbeing. The complex picture of locally understood wellbeing that emerged from this research presents an alternative picture to global perspectives reliant on survey self-reports. It serves as a reminder of the importance of methodological choices in global wellbeing research and urges the addition of local perspectives and paradigms to inform policy and practice.


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