What is the measure of happiness? How happy are we? Are we happier than others? Is our happiness level going up or down? These are tricky and difficult questions to answer.
Unlike inflation and economic growth rates, happiness is hard to measure. It is commonly believed that material well-being is a pre-condition for being. But it has been found that many poor persons are happy, while many rich people are miserable. In a wider sense, happiness is a state of mind borne out of many complex factors.
Now the UN has come out with its annual fourth World Happiness Report that gauges happiness across the globe with an extensive survey of thousands of happy and unhappy people. The report released last week coincided with the UN World Happiness Day on March 20.
The idea behind the “happiness project” is unique. The traditional measures of economic well-being ike GDP, inflation and life expectancy, which deal with numbers, have their limitations and fail to capture many variables and intangible elements that go into making a person happy or unhappy. Many former World Bank economists have expressed their dissatisfaction with GDP and such like metrics in assessing the level of human happiness.
According to the authors of the Happiness Report, happiness provides a better indicator of human welfare than do income, poverty, education, health and good government measured separately. The latest report has also included inequality of happiness as an additional measure and has come to the conclusion that those who live in places where happiness is equitably spread are happier than those who live in an unequal society.
The report was produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and edited by three economists – Sachs, the network’s director and a professor at Columbia University, John F. Helliwell, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and Richard Layard, a director of the Well-Being Programme at the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance.
The research is based on Gallup International surveys conducted from 2015 to 2017, in which thousands of respondents were asked to imagine a ladder with steps numbered 0 to 10 and to say which step they felt they stood on, a ranking known as the Cantril Scale. According to Mr. Sachs, to say one country is happier than another is a dicey business. He also noted that the happiest countries have very different political philosophies from the US. He said that most of the top 10 happiest countries are social democracies, which “believe that what makes people happy is solid social support systems, good public services, and even paying a significant amount in taxes for that.”
The study cites six significant factors, which determine a person’s level of happiness. These are: gross domestic product per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and corruption levels. The results are based on these six key factors.
According to the latest UN survey, Finland is the world’s happiest country while troubled Burundi in Africa is the most discontent. In addition to its joyful locals, Finland is also home to the happiest immigrants, the study found. The Nordic nation headed the 156-country ranking, followed by last year’s winner Norway, Denmark, Iceland which clinched the second, third and fourth positions, respectively. The United States and the United Kingdom were in 18th and 19th place, respectively.
The issue of migration was placed at the heart of the 2018 report, which also ranked 117 countries according to happiness of their immigrants. With a population of around 5.5 million people, Finland counted some 300,000 foreigners in 2016. According to John Helliwell, co-editor of the report: “The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born.”
The study found that the 10 happiest countries in the overall rankings also scored highest on immigrant happiness, suggesting that migrants’ wellbeing depends primarily on the quality of life in their adopted home. “Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose,” added Helliwell.
The unhappiest nation was Burundi whose leader, President Pierre Nkurunziza, changed his title from “eternal supreme guide” to “visionary” last week. Neutral observers decry the cult of personality surrounding Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005 and triggered a political crisis in the tiny central African nation when he won a third term three years ago. Venezuela, also rattled by a political and economic crisis, tumbled 20 places to the 102nd spot from 2017.
Surprisingly, Pakistanis are the happiest among all their bordering nations on the UN ranking table. Islamabad is 58 points ahead of its arch-rival India, 11 points ahead of its all-weather friend China, 31 of Iran, and 70 points ahead of Afghanistan. Pakistan is 92 on the list of 156 countries; more joyous than Iran (105) and India (118), but lagging behind Saudi Arabia (34). Bangladesh was ranked 115, down 40 points compared to Pakistan; Sri Lanka was ranked 116; China 86; Iran 106; India 133; and Afghanistan was ranked 145 on the index.
The report concludes that there are large gaps in happiness between countries, and these will continue to create major pressures to migrate. Some of those who migrate between countries will benefit and others will lose. In general, those who move to happier countries than their own will gain in happiness, while those who move to unhappier countries will tend to lose. One solution is to raise the happiness of people in the sending countries – perhaps by the traditional means of foreign aid and better access to rich-country markets, but more importantly by helping them to grow their own levels of trust, and institutions of the sort that make possible better lives in the happier countries.
Some critics have found fault with the structure of the questions asked to measure happiness – a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for one and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life. The respondent was asked to answer on which step of the ladder he/she felt they stood. Thus, in essence, they were asked about personal accomplishments, not about happiness.