Tracking happiness in countries, Southeast Asia, Wellbeing, Social Climate
OCT. 31, PHILADELPHIA—I am at a symposium with some two dozen editors and authors of a forthcoming comprehensive World History of Wellbeing, sponsored by Halloran Philanthropies, a private foundation with a vision of wellbeing achieved by 100 percent of humanity. Attending personally are founder and CEO Harry Halloran, his wife, and two of their children, who all share his vision.
The participants are sharing outlines and approaches for their respective portions of the book, which is intended for general educated readers. My own assignment (with historian Edilberto C. de Jesus as coauthor) is the history of wellbeing in Southeast Asia, with 1940 as starting point.
World Happiness. One of the important dimensions of wellbeing is happiness, a concept that is increasingly being measured throughout the world. For instance, the World Happiness Report 2013, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, has been widely reported as showing that the world’s happiest country is Denmark. It ranks the Philippines as 92nd, and Togo as last among the 156 countries scored. The happiness scores of these countries are 7.7 for Denmark, 5.0 for the Philippines, and 2.9 for Togo.
The data for these scores come from the Gallup World Poll (GWP), which in the case of the Philippines secures its sampling, field interviewing and data encoding services from Social Weather Stations. SWS executes the questionnaire designed by the Gallup Organization, and transmits the resulting data, which are proprietary to the GWP. SWS vouches for the quality of its survey work, needless to say.
Personally, I am not bothered by the Philippines being rated as “less happy” than Denmark or any of the countries ranked from 2 to 91. Neither am I relieved that the Philippines is rated “happier” than Togo or any of the countries ranked from 93 to 155. What really matters is for Filipino happiness to improve over time. As long as Filipino happiness rises, success in a
“Miss Happiness” contest is immaterial.
The survey question. Let’s take a close look at the GWP happiness score. It is the average answer to the survey question asking individual respondents to evaluate their current lives by imagining life as a ladder, with the top step as the best possible life, marked 10, and the ground as the worst possible life, marked zero. This is called a self-anchored scale. Note that only the top and the bottom are described verbally; aside from 10 and zero, all other answers are simply numbers that respondents can interpret as they like.
As individuals, Filipinos and Danes have their own different conceptions of the best and worst life, as well as the possible lives in between. They give their own meanings to answers of “10,” “0,” and the other numbers from “1” to “9.” There would be a Filipino range and a Danish range of meanings. The differences across Filipinos as individuals would likely be narrower than the differences between Filipinos as a group and Danes as a group, since the differences between groups are already cultural. Since Filipinos and Danes give different meanings to the numbers, then the average Filipino answer is not strictly comparable to the average Danish answer. This harms the validity of the happiness score for comparing Filipinos with Danes, but not for comparing Filipinos at two points in time.
Change in the happiness score over time. The GWP started in 2005, taking representative national samples of 1,000 adult individuals (the so-called “gold standard” sample) in each country each year. To increase the sample size and thus enhance accuracy, the new World Happiness
Report pooled together GWP surveys of each country for three years, and compared happiness scores of 2010-12 with those of 2005-07. It found that happiness increased in 60 countries, did not change significantly in 29 countries, and decreased in 41 countries.
Within Southeast Asia, happiness scores rose significantly in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, were steady in the Philippines and Singapore, and dropped in Malaysia, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). Here are the time-changes in scores, followed by the 2010-12 score, of each country; remember that it is more meaningful to compare the time-changes than the scores themselves.
Thailand: +0.53, 6.4; Indonesia: +0.33, 5.3; Cambodia: +0.20, 4.1; Vietnam: +0.17, 5.5; Philippines: +0.13, 5.0; Singapore: -0.03, 6.5; Malaysia: -0.38, 5.8; Laos: -0.43, 4.8; and Burma: -0.88, 4.4.
Official statistics on subjective wellbeing. The happiness score and other subjective indicators have been developed primarily by private research institutions, like Gallup in the United States, and, if I may say so, Social Weather Stations in the Philippines, rather than by official statistical agencies. But official agencies are fast becoming convinced of their value.
Life evaluation, in particular, is in the official statistics of Canada (yearly since 1985), the United Kingdom (quarterly since 2011), Italy (yearly since 2012), Mexico (every two years, from 2012), France (in 2011), Morocco (in 2012), and the European Union (in 2013). It will be done in New Zealand (every two years, from 2014) and Australia (every four years, from 2014).
The new Philippine Statistical Authority should likewise put regular surveys of subjective indicators of wellbeing on its own agenda. It is technically capable of being the leader, rather than a mere follower, on this subject matter, among the official statistical agencies of Southeast Asia.
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