OVERALL happiness in Asia is on the rise, according to a report by the United Nations to mark the International Day of Happiness.
Citizens of New Zealand, Australia and Singapore reported highest rates of life satisfaction, while the world’s second largest nation, India, was ranked second worst in the region.
The World Happiness Report 2017, published by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), ranks 155 countries by their respective happiness levels. This was the fifth report to be released since 2012. Gallup provided data access and assistance to the researchers.
The tiny, wealthy Scandinavian country of Norway topped the list while, perhaps predictably, the conflict-ridden nations of Syria, South Sudan and Yemen Republic all ranked in the bottom ten.
The report’s analysis is based primarily upon ‘individual life evaluations’ from each of the countries listed. In other words, respondents are asked to rank their satisfaction with their situation at ‘this time’ on a ladder of zero to 10.
In addition, the survey takes into consideration six other variable factors, namely: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.
How Asian countries compare
The World Happiness Index presents good news for the Asia Pacific region, highlighting overall “substantial happiness gains in Southeast Asia [and] East Asia.”
New Zealand and Australia were the happiest countries in the Asia Pacific according to the report being ranked 8th and 9th respectively. However, both saw a decline in its life satisfaction in 2014-2016 compared to 2005-2007. The ‘red dot’ city-state of Singapore was ranked at 26.
After these small, Anglophone advanced economies, the so-called ‘land of smiles’ Thailand was ranked at number 32, whilst neighbouring Malaysia sat at 42.
Interestingly, Thailand and the Philippines were in the top 20 countries to improve happiness – interesting given both nations have politically regressed into more authoritarian states in recent years.
Showing that money isn’t everything, higher income countries Japan and South Korea were ranked at 51 and 56. Sadly, The Japan Times newspaper reported this week that according to a survey by the country’s health ministry, about one in four Japanese people have considered suicide.
At the other end of the spectrum, the second-largest country on earth, India, ranked almost the lowest for life satisfaction in all of Asia at 122, after Ethiopia and Iran.
Indian netizens responded to the low ranking in droves, one claiming that Indians care more about cricket than their own wellbeing.
— sss (@sss_2585) March 22, 2017
— Nehal Vaidya (@Neh_v) March 22, 2017
Other South Asian nations also fared worse than countries in East and Southeast Asia, with Nepal at 99, Bangladesh at 100 and Sri Lanka at 120. As relatively poor, repressive countries with politically turbulent and violent histories, Vietnam (94), Myanmar (114) and Cambodia (129) ranked badly compared to their neighbours in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile the Asian giants of China, Pakistan and Indonesia were middle of the pack, coming in at 79, 80 and 81, respectively.
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Is economic growth making the Chinese happy?
In a special paper on China featured in the World Happiness Report 2017, researchers argued that China’s exponential economic growth in recent decades has not necessarily drastically improved wellbeing for the average Chinese citizen.
Whilst the ascendancy of China into an economic powerhouse since the introduction of market liberalisation policies in the 1980s has lifted some 800 million people out of poverty, the welfare of the ‘common man’ in China has barely improved.
In fact, between 1990 and 2005, average life satisfaction in China declined.
During China’s transition to a market economy to 2016, the report notes, “the lower income and older segments of the population have suffered most, and their life satisfaction remains below that in 1990.”
As indexed by GDP, wellbeing in China has multiplied over five-fold, yet based on ‘subjective wellbeing’ – i.e. asking people about their satisfaction in life – wellbeing “is, on average, less than a quarter of a century ago.”
Quality of life, corruption and inequality shape happiness
Well-ranked Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are all small, wealthy economies with high rates of employment and quality of life, strong social security nets, and programs that encourage upward mobility for disadvantaged groups.
In contrast, India has the most billionaires in Asia after China but the World Bank estimates that around 270 million people are still living below the poverty line. Much of Asia is still grappling with rampant corruption.
As researchers Richard A. Easterlin, Fei Wang and Shun Wang note, “the course of the life satisfaction difference by socio-economic status demonstrates the critical importance of full employment and safety net policies.”
This is key for improving the “well-being of the most disadvantaged segment of the population.”