Why Happiness Matters

Back in 1998 when Bhutan announced that they would start tracking Gross National Happiness I remember “laughing out loud” at the news. I now realise that this was a teenager’s reaction to what she understood of happiness- as an affective emotion, volatile and fleetingly related to the immediate past.

On the other hand, happiness that is measured for nations, is an evaluative understanding of the well-being expressed by the citizens. And the well-being of citizens is ultimately the business of any government. Or should be- why else do we pay taxes, follow rules…if not for a better sense of well-being?

Additionally, rising unhappiness has obvious linkages with social upheavals, and trends towards authoritarianism etc. All of it reiterating one fact- to track a nation’s happiness is no laughing matter.

What is the World Happiness Report?

The World Happiness Report (WHR) is produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and tracks 156 countries on a Life Evaluation Score. The 7th report was published in March ’19 and covers the period 2017-2018. To read the report, click here.

One of the more accessible parts of the report is the ranking of countries. These rankings are based on the Life Evaluation Scores– an average of responses to the “Cantril Ladder”- where respondents are asked the following question:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you.

If the top step is 10 and the bottom step is 0, on which step of the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?

OECD Guidelines On Measuring Subjective Well-Being, from the URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK189562/

Each country’s score is shown as a horizontal, multi-coloured bar.

For instance, India’s life evaluation score is 4.015, and that’s the length of the bar. All the countries are ranked according to their score and that’s how you have Finland at Rank no 1 (score of 7.769) and a South Sudan at rank no 156 (score of 2.853).

The multi-coloured sub-parts represent 6 variables that are usually used to explain the ranking. That means, if they were to be used in an equation how much of the score would they be able to contribute to? These 6 variables are GDP per capita, social support that a person can count on, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, perception of corruption and whether a person has given to charity (generosity).

To continue with India as an example: the 6 variables add up to 2.889 therefore explaining 72% of the total score (to see such details, you have to go to this page, and download “Chapter 2: Online Data” from the link on right panel). What about the balance 28%?

For that you need to understand the concept of Dystopia, which is well explained in the report’s FAQ. In short, Dystopia represents a country where all the 6 variables have the lowest values. Such a country would then have a score of 1.88.

Since all countries are better than Dystopia, their scores are built on this 1.88, and you get “Score = explained by the 6 variables + 1.88 + a balancing figure.”

This balancing figure will be called the Residual, and could be + or – (for India the Residual is -0.754. Or in other words, an unexplained factor is reducing India’s happiness score by 0.754 points).

Chart 1: this pretty chart is not for easy-reading. It’s just to show you how countries rank from the happiest to the least-happy states. If you’re looking for India, it’s number 140 out of 156. The colours represent the explanation of the score by the 6 variables & the residual. If you want to read the finer details click here

Screenshot from the WHR 2019, Chapter 2, “Changing World Happiness” from the link
https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/changing-world-happiness/

India & how her neighbours performed

The few references that I have seen to the Happiness report usually focus on India’s rank and quickly move out. But I am going to spend a little time on how we did especially versus our neighbourhood. There is no point in comparing with Nordic countries (so cold and yet so happy!). Instead let’s have a look at our neighbours with whom we share so many ethnic and cultural similarities.

Pakistan: at #67 is an interesting surprise to me. This is the highest rank amongst all the South Asian countries and frankly for me, this was a little unexpected. Interestingly, Pakistan mirrors India in the component that is explained by the 6-variables, but gets a +18.5% of the total score explained by unidentified variables. India, as you will see…does exactly the opposite.

Bhutan: at #95 has much to cheer. We started this blog talking about this small country’s attempts to distinguish itself on Gross National Happiness. The high contribution from “social support” propels it upward, even though a residual factor is reducing its scores and making it lag behind Pakistan.

Nepal: ranked #100. Both Nepal and Bhutan rank highly on social support which can make a significant impact on evaluation of happiness. Despite having better healthy life expectancy than Bhutan, Nepal seems to be getting affected by the lower GDP per capita. As they say, money does make the world go round!

Bangladesh: ranked #125 and is yet again proof of the strong linkages between social support and self-evaluation of happiness. However, an unexplained residual is is reducing the country’s score and affecting its ranking.

Sri Lanka: ranked #130 had all the indicators that could have taken it to the top of the South Asian list, but a brutal reduction through a Residual factor brings it down the ranks. Honestly makes me wonder what possible factors this could be?

India: ranks #140 and thanks to her large share of the population, also accounts for South Asia’s declining trends over the years. India also has the additional ignominious distinction of being one of the countries where happiness declined significantly in the 2016-18 versus 2005-08 base. To give a sense of the impact of such a decline:

  1. The loss in happiness is 2X more than the loss experienced if GDP per capita had halved
  2. Other countries that saw a major deterioration in happiness are notorious countries, where there have been “deep political, economic or social stress”: Yemen, Syria, Venezuela, Botswana.

Afghanistan: ranked #154 out of 156, is the only other South Asian country lower than India. Not surprisingly, the country trails across all the variables with the only saving grace (if one could call it that) being the egalitarian dispersion of its unhappiness.

Table 1: calculated from Online Data of WHR, worksheet for Table 2.6. From there, you can calculate the % contributions of the variables & figure out the contribution of residual factors using the relationship explained above.

CountryHappiness scoreExplained by 6 variablesExplained by Residual (beyond this model)Explained by: GDP per capitaExplained by: Social supportExplained by: Healthy life expectancyExplained by: Freedom to make life choicesExplained by: GenerosityExplained by: Perception of corruption
Pakistan5.6532.72918.5%12.0%15.7%9.5%5.5%3.9%1.7%
Bhutan5.0823.732-10.4%16.0%26.0%11.9%9.0%7.3%3.3%
Nepal4.9133.162-2.6%9.1%25.0%13.8%8.9%5.8%1.8%
Bangladesh4.4563.05-10.6%12.6%20.8%16.2%11.8%3.7%3.2%
Sri Lanka4.3663.807-30.3%21.8%29.0%19.0%10.8%5.6%1.1%
India4.0152.889-18.8%18.8%19.1%14.6%12.4%5.0%2.1%
Afghanistan3.2031.41-2.7%10.9%16.1%11.3%0.0%4.9%0.8%

What now?

The World Happiness Report is just one of the many indicators of our times, of where we stand as of now.

To be honest, the report has made me feel quite relieved. I was beginning to imagine that my rising pessimism was brought on by age and that tendency of old people to rave about “back in our halcyon days”. However, there does seem to be a genuine problem, which is beginning to show, through the impact on the happiness of citizens. The question is…what are we going to do about it?

What I would personally like are more granular works into those pesky residuals. If anyone has ideas on that, please connect! What for instance drove up Pakistan’s rank, and pulled down Sri Lanka & India so drastically?

I hope for the day, when all of our governments realise that commitments to sustainable development needs to move faster than the breakdown in citizen well-being. Until then.. hope for the best and expect the worst (?!)

Posted by:Dechen

Hi! I write on sustainability, books and simply lying fallow. I've worked for 14 years in various industries, but nothing will mean as much as making a real difference through the advocacy of Sustainability. This is a topic that I think is critical in developing economies like India/South Asia.