Aug 05, 2014

    The elusive happy factor

    IN THE midst of so much despair in Malaysia over endless contentious issues and state paralysis to resolve them, I searched the Internet to look at why some countries are happy and some are not.

    Not surprisingly, I found that Denmark was rated as the happiest country in the world in the 2013 World Happiness Report.

    Not surprising, too, are the reasons why its people are happy.

    The report highlights six key variables that explain three-quarters of the international differences in well-being between the top and bottom countries.

    They are gross domestic product per capita, perceptions of corruption, years of healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, prevalence of generosity and freedom to make life choices.

    It is not just wealth that determines happiness, as we all know. The report finds that political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption are together more important than income in determining the differences between national happiness and unhappiness.

    At the individual level, it finds good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and stable families crucial to happiness.

    It seems the Danes have got the right mix. Denmark is the least corrupt and most happy country in the world.

    Danes believe their government is there to serve the people, not the other way around. There is a high level of trust and social cohesion that supports high taxation to enable the government to invest in education, health and childcare.

    Feminism is seen as a collective goal, not a battle of the sexes. Seventy-two per cent of women work, compared with 79 per cent of men. Because of generous parental leave (a total of 52 weeks), free or low-cost childcare and early-childhood education, 79 per cent of mothers return to their previous level of employment.

    Voluntary gender quotas introduced by political parties in the 1970s have today resulted in women leading all the three parties in the ruling coalition, with Helle Thorning-Schmidt from the Social Democrats as prime minister.

    There is something to be said for the Nordic way of living, with its emphasis on social equity and well-being and an ethics of care that have often put countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden at the top of many development and well-being tables.

    This is the second World Happiness Report, sponsored by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and published by Columbia University's Earth Institute, led by the renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs.

    I am intrigued by this new science of happiness, how it can be defined, systematically measured and national variations explained to guide governments to pay more attention to the happiness and well-being of their citizens and to place these at the heart of policymaking.

    The report built on its first survey findings published in 2012, in which it found that:

    Happier countries tend to be richer countries. Living in a rich country does increase your chances of leading a good life. But it found that social factors - like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom - are more important for happiness than income.

    Over time, as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (for example, the United States).

    Unemployment causes as much unhappiness as bereavement or separation. At work, job security and good relationships do more for job satisfaction than high pay and convenient hours.

    Behaving well makes people happier.

    Mental health is the biggest single factor affecting happiness in any country.

    Stable family life and enduring marriages are important for the happiness of parents and children.

    In advanced countries, women are happier than men, while the position in poorer countries is mixed.

    As more countries move towards measuring happiness and well-being as an important component of development, the report recommends that, as a start, national statistical agencies allocate resources to include subjective well-being questions in their annual household surveys.

    The World Happiness Report makes primary use of the annual Gallup World Poll, which systematically tracks and reports on well-being, leadership approval ratings, confidence in national institutions, employment rates and other important issues affecting people's daily lives in over 140 countries.

    Malaysia's ranking in the World Happiness Index of 2013 has dropped from 51st to 56th, putting it behind Singapore (30) and Thailand (36), but ahead of Indonesia (76).

    I am afraid this year's findings might be worse, with the growing sense of foreboding about the future of the country, what with so many figures behaving badly ceaselessly at the national level.

    These findings are important as they also serve as early warning signs to governments. They can provide indicators of growing citizen discomfort and potential unrest.

    How, then, do we use the data to help design policies and guide citizens to lead "the right kind of life", to shape a future to achieve happiness and individual and national well-being, to go beyond economic growth and towards advancing the richness of human life?

    How do we generate the conditions that allow everyone to thrive? What is the role of the government in creating these enabling conditions?