No Free Lunch

Measuring happiness

/ 04:05 AM February 18, 2020

We like to think that the Philippines must be among the happiest countries in the world. We pride ourselves on being a hospitable, fun-loving people, and point out how Filipinos manage to find contentment, hope, and even humor in adversity — just look at the many funny memes on social media made around disasters. Surely, we must rate highly on gross national happiness (GNH), right?

Well, not quite. Guess what — we are actually just slightly above average (69th of 156 countries covered) in the United Nations’ (UN) ranking of the happiest countries in the world. In its 2019 World Happiness Report, Finland comes out the happiest, while South Sudan is the unhappiest. Also in the top 10 are Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria. Remarkably, the Scandinavian countries, often described as socialistic welfare states, are at the top of the list, even as critics of socialism argue that the system breeds lack of initiative, stagnation, and ultimately, economic misery.


If such ranking is possible, then there must have been some measurement of happiness done. In my last article on GNH, I noted that the leaders of the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan once argued that obsession with measurement could undermine the very usefulness of GNH. On the other hand, there’s a saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. The Bhutan government eventually saw the need for an assessment tool to “measure” GNH. With the help of Oxford University researchers, the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed a GNH Index based on a survey first conducted in 2008 and regularly thereafter, covering all 20 districts of the country.

The GNH survey employs a long questionnaire that polls citizens on their living conditions and religious life, and takes hours to complete one respondent. The information gathered covers nine domains: (1) psychological well-being, (2) health, (3) time use, (4) education, (5) cultural diversity and resilience, (6) good governance, (7) community vitality, (8) ecological diversity and resilience, and (9) living standards. Each of the nine domains is given equal weight, with 3-4 underlying variables tracked per domain. For example, psychological well-being is assessed through questions on life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions, and spirituality. Under education, questions asked concern literacy, schooling, knowledge on certain areas, and values. Living standards are measured on the basis of household income, assets, and housing. Within a domain, weights of the component variables are unequal, with subjective (or personal) indicators weighted lower than objective (or factual) indicators.


How are the results aggregated? The Bhutan authorities are wary of averages, especially in light of the statisticians’ saying: “When your head is in the oven and your feet in the freezer, your average temperature is normal.” To reduce the impact of extreme answers, a “sufficiency target” is set within each indicator, whereby a person is considered “happy” under the indicator when that level is achieved. For example, a set number of years of education and a set level of household income define what is “sufficient” under the education and living standards indicators, respectively.

How different is the UN World Happiness Index (UN-WHI)? The UN data are based on the Gallup World Poll, which interviews around 1,000 residents per country each year, randomly chosen to be statistically representative of the population. Respondents are asked to rate their level of happiness on a scale of 0 to 10, and the results averaged. The UN-WHI also examines six elements contributing to happiness, namely: average income (GDP per capita), social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions on corruption.

Among the six, the Philippines rates best on freedom of choice (No. 16), and least on generosity (No. 113). Both the Bhutan and UN indexes are criticized and disputed for various reasons, but what’s important is that the world is now seriously looking beyond GDP/GNP for true indicators of a country’s well-being, aka happiness.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, GNH, Gross National Happiness, No Free Lunch, UN World Happiness Index
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