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Are international sports contributing to global unhappiness? | by Abhinav Raghunathan | Aug, 2020

A deep dive into the impact of sports on a country’s happiness.

Abhinav Raghunathan

Sports have never been more important to the quarantined viewers of the world. It’s only respite from the drone of the news channels reporting pandemic statistics, after all.

A recent article by the World Economic Forum showcased some research that claimed that an international sports loss creates unhappiness twice as intense as the happiness experienced from a win. For example, according to the research, Croatia’s devastating 2–4 loss to France in the FIFA World Cup 2018 would have decreased Croatia’s happiness by an incredible amount — even though they won many games before it.

Even the best sports teams in a league win less than twice their losses. The 2018–2019 Houston Rockets, for instance, won 53 games and lost 29. This is an amazing record, but if unhappiness from losses is twice as intense as happiness from wins, then this implies that Rockets fans were largely unhappy by the end of the season.

The article claims, “sports make us sad.” Is this really true on an international level?

Do sports really correlate with unhappiness? Are countries that have a lot of sports teams (losing or otherwise) less happy?

To test this claim, I used a country’s rank on the World Happiness Index to quantify how happy a country really is (the lower the rank, the better). There were 139 countries represented in this dataset. I used data from the following international sports leagues:

  • Men’s T20 Cricket (ESPN), Women’s T20 Cricket (Wikipedia)
  • Men’s and Women’s Football (FIFA)
  • Men’s Rugby (World Rugby), Women’s Rugby (Scrum Queens)
  • Men’s and Women’s Basketball (FIBA)
  • Men’s and Women’s Field Hockey (FIH)
  • Men’s and Women’s Water Polo (FINA)
  • Men’s and Women’s Volleyball (FIVB)

Note: If two countries have Happiness Ranks of 1 and 5, the lower number is better because that country is in 1st place while the latter is in 5th.

The data I used gave me a correlation coefficient of 0.36, which suggests a moderate positive correlation between a nation’s number of sports teams and its happiness.

Much more convincingly, the data suggests that countries with at least one national sports team had an average happiness ranking of 75.72 (76th) while those without averaged at 115.09 (115th)!

Let’s establish a quick metric called the equality ratio, which is the number of a country’s men’s teams divided by the number of women’s teams.

The median position of a country with an equality ratio of 3.0 is 71, while countries with a higher ratio (i.e. more than three times as many men’s teams as women’s teams) is about 120. Essentially, a country with gender equality in sports teams is bound to be happier. It’s a no-brainer, really.

This one was surprising because it seems to confirm the article’s claim that more national losses correlates to worse national happiness. It seems obvious, but one could argue that the cumulative happiness a team gets on each stage of a tournament outweighs the disappointment that results when they lose the one final match.

As a bonus, here are the top performing nations on an aggregate level across all of the sports. In this table, the lower the league rank the better (i.e. if a country places 4th in international basketball but 2nd in international water polo, their average league rank will be 3rd).

A happy country is one that invests into the unifying and spirit-boosting ability of sports and does so equally, irrespective of gender. In fact, I think the World Happiness Index should consider sports as a proxy for nationwide happiness.

To counter the research shown in the World Economic Forum article, sports really do make people happy. Both the players and the viewers.

If you want to see the code or the data I used in doing this project, you can find my GitHub here. You can also follow me on Medium for more content like this. Thanks for reading!