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International Sports : A Barometer Of National Happiness?

International Sports : A Barometer Of National Happiness?

International Sports : A Barometer Of National Happiness? : How can the happiness of a country be estimated?

One method is to use international sports. Sports captures many quality-of-life variables that are difficult to quantify – such as national unity and whether society tolerates women in the public eye.

This study finds international sports (both number and gender representation) a relevant indicator of national happiness.

Happiness in this study is measured by the United Nations’ 2018 World Happiness Report. It is found that equal gender representation in middle-income countries contributes to an average happiness position of 86th to 77.5th (upward move of 8.5 spots) out of 156 countries.

In addition, moderate but statistically significant correlations exist between the number of international sports teams in a country and their Happiness Index ranking. Team performance also correlates with this ranking.

It is the finding of this study that countries with more, better-performing sports teams with equal representation tend to be happier overall.


Animal brains, in most cases, are programmed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Most animals, unlike humans, have a very straightforward idea of what pleasure and pain are.

They follow Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” very closely – focusing primarily on securing physiological needs (food, water, warmth, etc.) and security needs (shelter, safety, etc.), but have been known to dip into the third layer of love and belonging (pack or community animals, for example).

For animals, “happiness” might be meeting their basic needs.

For humans, happiness is ill-defined and varies from individual to individual. Some theorists contend that there is no happiness (only tolerance) until the last two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-esteem and self-actualization, are met. It begs the question, what makes humans happy?

Many studies have made happiness as their elusive subject in an effort to understand more about what happiness, in a cross-cultural, universal sense, actually is. Over the years, the literature has echoed some similar factors that are important when considering both objective and subjective well-being (OWB, SWB).

Wealth is an obvious factor, and it does correlate with happiness – to an extent. In established countries like the United States, wealth might create more happiness. In middle-income countries, however, there is little evidence on the positive relationship between economic growth and SWB [7]. Furthermore, there is evidence that the populations that benefit most from national athletic success include those of lower socioeconomic status and women [4].

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Figure 1.1: GDP per capita does correlate with happiness to some extent but is by no means a perfect indicator.

Other variables such as access to healthcare, social support, crime rate, and education are universally recognized as important, but quantifying these items is no simple task.

A subsidiary of the United Nations called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes an annual report (The World Happiness Report) on the state of happiness in the world in which they rank about 150 countries in six categories that they have used to estimate happiness. Their results, derived from survey results as well as other datasets, are an excellent measure of both OWB and SWB.

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Table 1.1 Six variables used to rank countries in the 2018 World Happiness Report explains 75%.

These variables explain about 75% of the happiness data collected from the “Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale,” a particular type of survey questionnaire which Gallup administered to many people internationally. Of course, even with these general categories, there are many facets of human life that are unaccounted for. National pride, for example, might fall under “perceptions of corruption,” but it seems to still be a different concept. Gender equality may be captured in large part by “freedom to make life choices,” but the data used to measure this variable comes primarily from survey results. The ideal way to measure happiness would be to observe human behavior in its natural environment within the bounds of a country. What better way to do this than through sports?

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Figure 1.2 Chloropleth of countries by position on the Happiness Index.

Sports play a large part in the average person’s life. Historically, there are very few cultures (if any) that did not invest time and energy into sports. The Greeks had their Olympic Games, the ancient Indians had kabaddi, the Aztecs had ullamaliztli, the list is infinite.

Physical activity creates a serotonin release in the brain – a form of pleasure. In modern times, the world of international organized sports still plays a large role in our lives. Besides inspiring us to engage in physical activity, it has been shown that our mood and sense of national pride fluctuates with international team success. The FIFA World Cup has even been shown to increase the rate of heart attacks for watchers in close games [2].

Additionally, sports are manifestations of what society yields to its subjects. It follows that countries that are passionate about all sports had to have made resources and avenues available to its citizens so that they might choose to train and make a career out of the game. Countries that have little to no sports presence might have other, more dire priorities.

International sports teams are luxuries, after all. Gender equality also plays a large role in sports. There are a handful of countries (New Zealand, Canada, etc.) that have as many men’s teams as women’s teams. Others (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc.) do not.

This might simply be because of demand, but the availability of women’s sports teams indicates that women’s opportunities in that country at least resemble their male counterparts’. Gender equality in sports is a multidimensional issue with barriers ranging from a lack of female role models to media portrayals and demand differences. Countries that have (at least in part) surpassed these barriers no doubt have a more tolerant view than countries that simply ban women from sports.

In this way, sports (namely, the number and composition of a country’s international sports teams) might be a strong indicator of a country’s happiness. This study performs a series of correlation tests and statistical analyses to evaluate the strength of sports as a happiness indicator by using the 2018 World Happiness Report.


Datasets/data manipulation.
The main datasets used were GDP data [9], happiness data [10], and sports data. The GDP data was sourced from the World Bank’s website, the happiness data from the World Happiness Index 2018 report, and sports league ranking data from a variety of international sports organization websites (FIFA, FIBA, FIVA, etc.). The sports used in this study were: cricket [11], football (European) [12], basketball [13], field hockey [14], volleyball [15], water polo, and rugby [17][18]. Note that the maximum number of teams a country can represent in this data is 14 teams.

The data was then cleaned and missing/mismatching country names (“Great Britain” and “Ireland” vs. “United Kingdom,” for example) were handled. This data was integrated together into one file. “Representation ratios,” or how much of the country’s sports teams consist of a particular sex, were computed as the ratio of men’s/women’s teams to the total. Countries were grouped by the number of available teams and their men’s/women’s representation ratio and their Happiness Index averages were calculated, then plotted.

Correlating gender representation in sports with happiness.
Countries were grouped by their male representation ratios and the group’s average happiness rank was computed, then plotted against the World Happiness Index rankings. A Pearson’s correlation test was used to verify linearity.

The second experiment divided the 156 countries into thirds (bottom, middle, top), then divided them once more depending on whether the country’s women representation ratio exceeded the international average. Countries below this average are considered “male-dominated,” while countries above are considered “diverse.” The median happiness rank for each third and for each category were calculated, then plotted against the World Happiness Index rankings.

Correlating international team performance with happiness.
The ranks of each country in each sport was found from the international league’s website. These ranks were averaged together for each country to arrive at an international average sports team rank. These ranks were plotted against the World Happiness Index rankings. A Kendall’s Tau correlation test was used to demonstrate linearity, as both variables are ordinal.

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Figure 2.1: Wealthier countries have more sports teams. The number of sports teams can therefore serve as a proxy for national wealth.

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Figure 2.2: Countries with more sports teams tend to be ranked higher for happiness than their peers. The correlation here is quite strongly positive.

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Figure 2.3: Male-dominance alone does not display a statistically significant correlation with happiness, though the sign suggests that there is a negative correlation.

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Figure 2.4: Above average women’s representation in sports tends to relate to happier countries. This difference is highly pronounced in the middle third of countries, with a mildly positive difference in the top third and a negative difference in the bottom third.

Table 2.1: Corresponding table for Figure 2.5. Note that most deltas are positive except for the bottom third.

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Figure 2.5: Countries with better performing teams relative to their peers tend to be happier. This correlation is statistically significant but is still only moderately positive.

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Table 2.2: Statistical significance of correlation tests with significance levels shown.


From Figure 2.2, it is clearly shown that countries with more international sports teams tend to be happier. The correlation was incredibly strong (r =0.9217), even stronger than the correlation between GDP and a country’s happiness in Figure 1.1 (r=0.7165), which might be because the number of international sports teams is a variable that encompasses not only GDP (Figure 2.1), but also other, more subtle variables such as national unity and gender equality.

Furthermore, countries that are very invested in sports see a general rise in happiness as they amount more international wins. In other words, countries with better performing teams tend to be higher up in the happiness rankings, as in Figure 2.4.

Gender Equality in Sports

Figure 2.3 demonstrates the correlation between the men’s representation ratio and happiness. The correlation is weakly negative (r=-0.2852). While it does provide some evidence for happier countries being diverse in their sports teams, it is not a statistically significant result. However, from Figure 2.4, gender diversity has a clear correlation with improved happiness. A few subtleties emerge when these findings are examined more closely.

Firstly, in the bottom third of the Happiness Index, countries with diverse teams have median rank that is lower than countries with male-dominated teams. However, countries in this bottom third have other quality-of-life factors that are far more important than those that sports provide. In this category are countries that are actively in crises – be it economic, humanitarian, or otherwise.

For example, countries with ongoing conflicts such as Iraq, Egypt, or Mali would not prioritize sports over other, more dire issues, such as the economy or peacekeeping. In the first third of the Happiness Index are countries that have generally met most requirements for happiness. Countries that offer little to no gender diversity in sports such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar do rank slightly worse on the Happiness Index than those that are diverse (27th vs. 26th, on average), but still maintain high levels of happiness because they are wealthy and can sustain strong healthcare, education, and economy.

The largest effect of diversity in sports occurs in the middle third of countries. Here, countries are not necessarily experiencing any type of major strife but are not particularly wealthy. In these countries, diversity matters. Countries in the middle third with gender representation in international arenas tend to be happier than their peers. Diversity in sports might be able to serve as a proxy for diversity in society since gender equality yields happiness irrespective of gender.

Effect of Sports Teams performance on National Happiness
On the international level, where national pride is in contention, sports fans feel the rise and fall of their teams. Naturally, their happiness follows suit. From Figure 2.5, countries with better performing teams tend to be ranked higher on the Happiness Index.

The data demonstrated a moderately positive linear correlation (τ=0.3943) between a nation’s average sports ranking (out of 156 teams) and the same nation’s happiness ranking. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that as international teams continuously win, the national pride and sense of belonging in their constituents might rise as well. Another explanation is that wins promote passion for the sport on the community level, leading to larger engagement with physical activity from individuals and increased happiness as a result.


The purpose of this study was to examine the correlation between international sports with a country’s happiness. Using multiple correlations, it has been demonstrated that international sports teams may serve as a decent predictor for happiness because they capture so many quality-of-life variables. Granted, with any correlation there always exists lurking variables. However, the point of using an indicator like sports is that it is holistic.

This study was performed using only six sports. This by no means accurately captures all a country’s international sports – regional and solo athletics (tennis, kabaddi, track/field for example) are certainly manifestations of a country’s dedication to sport and entertainment but were not evaluated in this study. It might also be interesting to attempt to introduce sports streaming/broadcasting data to boil sports down into the realm of the individual. So far, it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that a country with a plethora of extremely well-performing teams, male and female, will most likely be found at the top of the happiness charts.

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Table A1.1, A1.2, A1.3: The top ten aggregate, men’s, and women’s team performers in the world were found to be a list of familiar names – most within the top third of the Happiness Index. Note that the average team rank and the happiness variable should be interpreted as a standing (i.e., 10th of 156).

Figure A1.1: Distribution of international sports teams. All 156 countries have at least two recognized teams.

Table A2.1: Country-wide representation across the seven sports. Note that most studies involving sports and happiness have been performed on football, since it is the world’s most popular sport.

Written by Abhinav Raghunathan

Edited by Alexander Fleiss

  1. Downward, Paul & Rasciute, Simona. (2010). Does sport make you happy? An analysis of the well‐being derived from sports participation. International Review of Applied Economics. 25(3). 331-348.
  2. Wilbert-Lampen, Ute, et al. (2008). Cardiovascular events during World Cup soccer. The New England Journal of Medicine. 358. 475-483.
  3. Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
  4. Hallmann, K., Breuer, C., Benedikt, K. (2013). Happiness, pride, and elite sporting success: what population segments gain most from national athletic achievements? Sport Management Review. 16(2). 226-235.
  5. Kavetsos, G., Szymanski, S. (2010). National well-being and international sports events, Journal of Economic Psychology. 31(2). 158-171. 1077-1086.
  6. Guthold, R., et al. (2018). Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1.9 million participants, The Lancet Global Health. 6(10).
  7. Kenny, C. (2005). Does Development Make You Happy? Subjective Wellbeing And Economic Growth In Developing Countries. Soc Indic Res 73199–219.
  8. Huggins, A., Randell, S. (2007). The Contribution of Sports to Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

Data Sources:

  1. The World Bank GDP Data. Retrieved 2018.
  2. The World Happiness Report 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  3. International Cricket Council. Retrieved 2018.
  4. Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Retrieved 2018.
  5. Fédération Internationale de Basketball Association Retrieved 2018.
  6. Fédération Internationale de Hockey. Retrieved 2018.
  7. Fédération Internationale de Volleyball. Retrieved 2018.
  8. Fédération Internationale de Natation Association. Retrieved 2018.
  9. World Rugby. Retrieved 2018.
  10. Scrum Queens. Retrieved 2018.