A few weeks ago, I posted on how policymakers are increasingly using a "happiness" indicator to inform public policy. Ironically, while writing that piece, I was very unhappy and not as a result of any of the factors traditionally deemed significant. Rather, my unhappiness was singularly due to my neurotic and perpetual search for updates on a pending federal court case related to the eligibility of my favorite NFL quarterback--who, thankfully, has now been vindicated. Despite my own proclivities, sports and their related scandals were not deemed an important driver of happiness by the United Nations (unless being a rabid sports fan is a form of mental illness).
My own sporting biases aside, this got me thinking. How many others around the world are, far more often than not, made miserable by their favorite sports teams?
Having just examined national happiness, I thought why not explore its relationship with the sport most likely to infuriate people around the world: Soccer (or "Football" to 28.6% of my visitors). By any meaningful measure, soccer is the world's most popular sport. During the 2010 World Cup, at least 3.2 billion (56% of the world's population at the time) tuned in for at least a portion of one game and more than 2.2 billion tuned in for at least 20 consecutive minutes of one game--including 31% of viewers in the United States. While still not officially released by FIFA--soccer's international governing organization, never famous for its transparency—the 2014 World Cup final between Argentina and Germany likely dwarfed even these gaudy numbers; it was projected to be seen by more than 1 billion viewers.
However, just because lots of people watch their national team's matches, doesn't necessarily mean they care enough for it to impact their perceived wellbeing. That said, an international comparison of FIFA soccer rankings could act as a proxy for other national differences influencing happiness. Maybe a strong soccer team is indicative of a healthy and active population, financial wealth, strong civic organizations, or an effective government? Or maybe there is no relationship at all?
(If you're curious, the world's second most popular sport is a matter of dispute. If you go by television viewership? The highest ratings for a sporting event, ever, was the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics—with more than 1 billion viewers. By attendance? The highest attendance for any professional sports league is Major League Baseball—its Japanese equivalent places second. Regular viewership and participation? Then maybe the second most popular sport is Cricket. It is the premier sport of India and Pakistan, two countries that account for almost a quarter of humanity.)
Soccer and Happiness
To begin exploring the relationship between the world's most popular sport and happiness, I took the top 100 soccer nations (as ranked by FIFA) and graphed them alongside their happiness scores. The graph below shows the crude correlation between the two.
As you can see above, a country's happiness is indeed positively correlated with its international soccer ranking; as your team improves, your happiness improves. The top 10 soccer nations have an average happiness score of 6.4 while the bottom 10 have an average score of 5.9 (Finland, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia being happy with their bad soccer teams).
Now, if we were to suspend our disbelief for a moment— ignoring the many, many, nearly countless ways in which this is not identifying a causal relationship—the graphs below show the results of regressing soccer rankings on happiness.
From the first chart, the R Square indicates that 15.1% of the variation in national happiness can be explained by its national soccer team's ranking. In the second chart, you will see (under "Sig.") that Soccer Rank is statistically significant indicator at the 1% level (which is very good). You will also see that moving up one rank on the soccer ladder (under "B") is associated with 0.015 improvement on the happiness scale. To give that number more perspective, moving up 10 rankings would increase happiness by 14% of the standard deviation in happiness scores—or from Luxembourg's happiness to about New Zealand's.
Could you ever find a causal relationship?
To actually understand the causal relationship between a soccer team's ranking and its country's happiness, you would have to overtime track the variations in each team's FIFA ranking alongside variations in each country's happiness—all the while controlling for the numerous other factors that influence happiness (see my happiness post for what those are). To do this would require prohibitively expensive regular surveying and perhaps a system that looked at national team losses rather than small fluctuations in rank (it being far more likely that citizens are aware of losses than small shifts in the FIFA rankings).
On top of that, because of the possibility of reverse causality—that is, maybe happier countries produce better soccer teams rather than the other way around—you would need to find an instrumental variable (a variable that influences happiness only through its effect on soccer rankings) and good luck with that.
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