THE World Happiness Report operates from the premise that happiness can be measured, counted up via surveys, tabulated in statistics and then ranked by country. This year’s report ranks 155 countries in a master ranking of happiness. It also proves statistically what all of us have known tacitly: rich people are happier than poor people, more likely to describe themselves as “happy” and consequently rich countries, made up as they are of rich people, are happier than poor countries.
Of all the lucky and happy countries, the happiest and consequently the luckiest is Norway, ranked number one among the 155. Its other Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, are not far behind, all of them appearing in the top 10 happiest places in the world. With little threat of war, free healthcare and state support for unemployment or disability, Norwegians need not fret over the concerns that trouble the rest of us.
According to the report’s authors, however, Norwegians are happy not because of their country’s wealth but in spite of it; ever frugal, they drill their oil reserves sparingly and slowly invest the profits rather than frittering them all away. As a consequence, Norway’s economy is cushioned from sudden downturns and its people from common worries that are everybody else’s affliction. Those who save are rarely sorry and the case of Norway, the happiest country in the world, proves just that.
How you estimate Pakistan’s position depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.
At number 80, Pakistan falls in the middle of the pack of countries ranked by the happiness index, not anywhere in the league of Denmark and Norway but beating both India and Bangladesh. At number 122, India fell four places in the happiness index between last year and this year’s rankings. One Indian publication blamed unemployment, malnutrition and poverty as possible causes, another threw the blame at the lack of vacation time, citing a study that ranked India as the fourth most vacation-deprived country in the world.
At number 79, China ranks higher than India but (rather surprisingly) sharp improvements in the standard of living of the Chinese over the past 25 years have not produced equivalent advances in levels of reported happiness. If the World Happiness Report is to be believed, the Chinese are absolutely no happier than they were in 1990 when per capita income was significantly lower than it is today. A possible cause for Chinese unhappiness could be the perceived lack of personal and political freedom, an indicator on which the world’s happiest countries rank very highly. More money, it seems, cannot entirely eliminate the misery produced by the constrictions and constraints of a repressive society.
The import of a World Happiness Report lies in the insights it can provide about the human experience as a whole — and there are some interesting ones in this year’s edition. Across all 155 countries, unemployment produces a huge drop in an individual’s estimation of their own happiness. Similarly, regardless of whether a country is rich or poor, the misery of mental illness is the single factor having the largest impact on happiness. It makes sense then that countries that have few resources to deal with mental illness and in which mental illness is stigmatised do not rank as highly on the happiness index as those where the mentally ill can be properly treated and are not subject to social exclusion and ostracism.
For all its insights, however, the World Happiness Report is yet another ranking according to whose parameters rich countries rank higher, seem better and hence establish a dominance of sorts over lesser nations. The happiness ranking, comprehensive and exhaustive as it may seem, does not reveal that the countries at the bottom of the list — the Central African Republic, Yemen and Syria amongst them — have all been the subject of troublesome meddling by richer, more powerful (and happier) Western nations. Invasion or intervention of this sort is not measured or interrogated by the authors of the happiness index, nor is it considered a possible cause for a lower happiness ranking.
The underlying premise of the World Happiness Report is that ‘happiness’ measured subjectively via a number of variables is the most coveted state of being in the world. Happiness, it is assumed, is the object of all human action and the consequently ultimate metric of well-being, more thorough and accurate than earlier tabulations that ranked the world’s nations on the basis of other measurements — the sum of their gross domestic product or the level of their economic growth. And yet even this metric of ‘happiness’ and its measurement using (at least in part) surveys of individuals may be unduly reliant on individualistic notions of self.
In societies where group identities are dominant, survey questions that demand subjective and individual estimations of happiness would be unusual, with survey respondents unaccustomed to considering their relative happiness or unhappiness independent of the consensus of family or clan or tribe. Similarly, some societies may prioritise piety or unity over individual happiness, making the latter a less than ideal measure of their well-being in relation to others.
At almost exactly halfway down the happiness index, how you estimate Pakistan’s position depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, inclined to see the glass half full or half empty. In either case, improvement is always possible: the Central American country of Nicaragua, beset with just as many challenges as Pakistan, came in at number 43, making it the most improved country in the entire set of rankings. What’s possible for Nicaragua may be possible for Pakistan, a climb from the bottom half into the upper half, a transformation from an almost happy country to a truly happy one.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2017