The elusive happy factor

The elusive happy factor

In the midst of so much despair in the country 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 Denmark rated as the happiest country in the world in the 2013 World Happiness Report.

Not surprising too are the reasons why they 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 GDP 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 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 as 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 support 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 to 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 this at the heart of policy making.

The report built on its first survey findings published in 2012 where 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 more important for happiness than income are social factors like the strength of social support, the absence of corruption and the degree of personal freedom.

> Over time, as living standards have risen, happiness has increased in some countries, but not in others (e.g. 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. Yet only a quarter of mentally ill people get treatment for their condition in advanced countries and fewer in poorer countries.

> 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.

Respondents are asked two sets of questions. One to measure their happiness as an evaluation of their life as a whole. And the other to measure happiness as an emotion. They were asked on their emotional experience the day before the interview - if they smiled or laughed a lot, did they experience enjoyment, happiness, worry, sadness, anger.

The report also looks at the benefits of happiness on health and longevity, income, productivity and organisational behaviour, individual and social behaviour. It gathered existing scientific evidence which indicates that subjective well-being has an objective impact across a broad range of behavioural traits and life outcomes. Levels of well-being predict future health, mortality, productivity and income. Happiness is associated with greater cooperation, motivation, and creativity, which in turn are instrumental to success in business, and in life as a whole.

So how can governments put well-being at the heart of policy making? This research shows that economic, social, psychological and ethical factors are all important to make people happy. And yet governments tend to focus only on economic growth, seeing rising income and consumption as the key to well-being.

As more and 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.

These questions, rated on a scale of 0-10, are:

> Overall, how satisfied are you with life as a whole these days?

> Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

> How did you feel yesterday - happy, worried, depressed?

These findings can then be correlated with key variables and data to generate enough information to shape policy making towards better national well-being. 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).

Malaysia scored 5.760 in the Cantril ladder scale - a measure using respondents' evaluation of their lives by imagining life as a ladder; the best possible life as a 10, and the worst possible life as a zero. Denmark scored 7.693.

I am afraid the 2014 findings might be worse with the growing sense of foreboding about the future of the country, 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 to advancing the richness of human life? How do we generate the conditions that allow everyone to thrive? What is the role of government in creating these enabling conditions?

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