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Harmony in the World 2013: The Ideal and the Reality


Many global indicators rank countries according to valued goods such as freedom, wealth, or happiness, but they all share the same flaw: they neglect the importance of rich and diverse social relations for human well-being. The Harmony Index (HI) is an effort to remedy this flaw. It measures four types of relations that matter for human well-being. The HI attempts to measure the extent of peaceful order and respect for diversity—what Confucian thinkers call harmony—within each relation, and ranks countries according to the score for overall harmony. This inaugural HI made use of comprehensive and reliable comparative data for 27 countries. Our findings show that small and relatively wealthy countries tend to be more harmonious countries. Compared to other leading global indices, however, the Harmony Index is less influenced by gross domestic product per capita and by the extent of democracy in a country. Population has a greater impact on harmony than either wealth or political system. We constructed another HI with fewer measurements for family well-being but covering a broader range of countries. A chart with 43 countries demonstrates that it is possible to achieve a high score on the HI without a high level of wealth or democracy. A detailed breakdown of the findings allows us to draw some tentative policy implications at the end of the report. Establishing and nourishing harmonious social relations and a non-destructive approach to the environment is a goal shared by most of the world’s cultures, ethical systems, and religions, and a harmony index can and should be used as a key indicator of social progress and regress.

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  1. One consistent trans-cultural research finding is that people generally experience greater life satisfaction if they have strong and frequent social ties, live in healthy ecosystems, and experience good governance. See “Factors Predicting the Subjective Wellbeing of Nations”.

  2. The U.S. is praised for helping to overthrow the Qaddafi regime in Libya but the country is scolded for its ambivalent commitment to democratic change: “Yet the United States seems uncomfortable with acknowledging its contribution to this important step forward for democratic values and the transformation of politics in the Middle East” (Freedom House 2013, pp. 11–12).

  3. Family relations are mentioned only once in the summary of the 2013 HDI report, in the negative sense of a constraint on human freedom: “Policies that change social norms that limit human potential, such as strictures against early marriages or dowry requirements, can open up additional opportunities for individuals to reach their full potential” (UNDP 2013, p.13).

  4. Experienced well-being is measured by the “ladder of life question in the Gallup World Poll,” which asks people to say where they stand on a ladder that goes from worst to best possible life (NEF 2012, p. 7). Ambitious people are bound to place themselves lower on this ladder compared to pleasure-seeking types who are satisfied with the status quo.

  5. For discussion of a more controversial (and original) argument that cutthroat capitalism in the US allows for more innovation compared to welfare-spending relatively egalitarian countries such as Sweden (with the implication that “cuddly capitalists” free-ride on the US since innovation increases the growth rate of the entire world economy), see “Why Can’t America be Sweden?”.

  6. The case for a social harmony index does not need to be supported by the argument that social harmony is more important than other values systematically measured in previous global indices; what matters is that we agree social relations are important for human well-being. Still, the case for a social harmony index can be further strengthened by an argument that social harmony is more important than values measured in previous indices. The stronger argument on behalf of social harmony may require a whole book, but here is a brief sketch: Freedom and wealth are means for human well-being, whereas the pursuit of rich and diverse social relations is both a constituent element of human well-being and a moral obligation. Subjective happiness is mainly a by-product of rich and diverse social relations and may also be the product of immoral behavior. Thus, social harmony is more fundamental than the pursuit of freedom, wealth, or subjective happiness.

  7. See “家庭幸福指数国际对标研究” (“Comparing Global Measures of Family Happiness”). It is worth asking why the main global indicators all suffer from the same basic problem. One reason is that the indicators tend to be created and funded in Western capitalist democracies that have a more individualist culture. Another reason might be that the creators tend to be males, who may be less sensitive to the importance of family and social relations for human well-being compared to females.

  8. Unless otherwise indicated, we do our own translations from the Chinese.

  9. For more systematic discussions of the Confucian idea of harmony, see Chenyang Li, The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony and Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood.

  10. Other cultures or traditions may place different emphasis on other social relations: for example, Daoists may value harmony with nature over harmony between humans.

  11. We have modified the translation of the Record of Music from

  12. No Canadian province has a license plate motto similar to that of New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die.”

  13. Spinoza’s dilemma is vividly portrayed in Irvin D. Yalom’s novel, The Spinoza Problem.

  14. We draw on (in modified form) the discussion “The Criteria for a Useful Trait” in The Measure of Civilization, pp. 28–29. We do not discuss Morris’s effort to quantify social development because his aim is more to measure civilizational power (it includes such non-moral, if not immoral, traits as war-making capacity) rather than human well-being, but his methodological discussion provides helpful guidance for construction of a trans-cultural index.

  15. Again, the graded index is more closely tied to Confucian ethics than the more non-graded index, since different ethical traditions might grade different relations differently (see note 10).

  16. We made a similar judgment call regarding “workplace harmony.” On the surface, the lack of strikes may suggest workplace harmony, but the use of this measure would reward countries that make it illegal to go on strike, hence masking substantial disharmony. We decided not to use this measure, but with the cost that countries that nourish genuinely harmonious relations in the workplace are not rewarded as much as they should be.

  17. We deliberately chose suicide rates among the old (over 75) and the young (under 15) as indicators of (lack of) “weak harmony” in the family because they are more likely to be caused by family problems (loneliness in the case of the old, especially in Confucian-influenced societies such as South Korea where the old expect to be cared for by family members) and to negatively impact other family members (especially in the case of the suicide of children). That said, there is reason to question the data for suicide rates among the old: the recording of suicide rates on death certificates is dodgy because autopsies are not routinely carried out, especially when the very old are involved.

  18. One intriguing finding is that countries that allow same-sex marriage tend not to allow polygamy, and vice versa, so including these measurements may not have had much effect on the harmony rankings. One country—South Africa—does allow both same-sex marriage and polygamy, and it would have ranked higher on the HI had we included these measurements for strong harmony in family relations.

  19. For more information on the raw and coded data that gives more sense of the relative scores and distances, see

  20. Perhaps parents in Nordic countries do not educate their children with the idea that the children should make their parents proud, but parental pride might still emerge as a by-product of some other parental values, such as the idea that children should grow up to lead happy and fulfilling lives, and parents will be proud if their children realize this aim. Still, there may be a key cultural difference: in countries with a Confucian background, adult children are typically expected to “repay” their parents for their care, and part of that “repayment” includes the idea that adult children should strive to make parents proud; in Nordic countries, the main point of upbringing may still be individualistic in its essence (as a European friend once said about his child, “my task as a parent is to take a completely dependent being and make him completely independent”).

  21. See “Richer Countries Have Higher Depression Rates”. We did not use data on depression in our report because the cross-national data only covers 18 countries. In principle, more comprehensive and reliable cross-national data on depression might be a good indicator of (lack of) harmony in a country.

  22. Total cost: 749 RMB (122.01 USD), including 220 RMB (35.84 USD) for web page, 500 RMB (81.45 USD) for cover design, and 29 RMB (4.72 USD) for photocopying charges. We did not (try to) get support from the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the Chinese Communist Party, Goldman Sachs, the Ford Foundation, or any other large organization that typically supports such global indices.

  23. For a study that aims at ascertaining how Hong Kong people perceive Hong Kong as a harmonious society, see Simon S.M. Lo and Raymond S.Y. Chan, “Social Harmony in Hong Kong: Level, Determinants, and Policy Implications.” For our purposes, such studies would need to be carried out globally.

  24. But how to measure harmony between friends: the number of Facebook friends? On the increasing importance of ties between “city-zens”, see D.A. Bell and A. de-Shalit, The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age, esp. new preface. For an intriguing effort to measure harmony in cities, see State of the World’s Cities 2008/2009: Harmonious Cities. The main drawback of this report is that it focuses only on equity and sustainability within cities; we would try to measure respect for diversity as well.

  25. An example of strong harmony would be the extent of people who speak more than one language in a country (a country with, say, two main language groups that lead separate linguistic lives, similar to Canada before the 1980 s, would not count as strongly harmonious in our sense because the interaction has to be mutually beneficial). Hence, a country like Ghana—where nearly everybody speaks at least three languages—would do better on a harmony index that measures the extent of people who speak more than one language. Unfortunately, we could not find such global measurements.


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We are grateful for discussions with Chenyang Li, Jing Jun, and Tamarshi Jamieson that helped conceptualize this project, as well as to Joseph Carens, Stein Kuhnle, Chenyang Li, Peter Katzenstein, Parag Khanna, Paik Wooyeal, Qian Jiang, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. We would also like to thank conference participants for comments on earlier drafts of this report presented at the Goethe Institute in Hong Kong, February 26, 2013; the Chinese/African Philosophy Colloquium, Shanghai Jiaotong University, May 11, 2013; and the conference on 关注家庭建设, 促进家庭幸福——“国际家庭日”中国行动 (Valuing Family Building and Improving Family Happiness—China’s Action on the “International Family Day”), Friendship Hotel, Beijing, May 15, 2013. We are thankful for materials sent by Stephen Angle, Joseph Chan, Benedict Kingsbury, Parag Khanna, Hagop Sarkissian, and Sebastian Woitsch.

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Correspondence to Daniel A. Bell.

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Bell, D.A., Mo, Y. Harmony in the World 2013: The Ideal and the Reality. Soc Indic Res 118, 797–818 (2014).

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  • Harmony Index
  • Social Relations
  • Peaceful order
  • Respect for diversity