What does the World Happiness Index really tell us about happiness?
I took a look at the 2022 World Happiness Report during the weekend, hoping to take a break from the misery of wars from Ukraine to Yemen.
I found it pretty amusing and utterly depressing.
The fact that Finland, long a “buffer” state between Russia and the West, is crowned the happiest country in the world for the fifth consecutive year should give Ukrainians and the rest of us, pause.
Ukraine, which ranks 98, has come under Russian assault mainly or allegedly because it rejected the “buffer state” status, among other demands.
Switzerland and Austria, which ranked fourth and 11th respectively, have also been neutral states since the beginning of the Cold War.
But before we discuss the report’s findings, let us start at its beginnings.
According to its authors, the tiny poor Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan should be thanked for the “World Happiness Report” and for “much of the growing international interest in happiness”.
Well, it is not like until Bhutan intervened much of the world’s interest was focused on misery, but it may have emphasised the wrong indicators, considering that prosperous modernity has proven no guarantee for happiness and may well cause greater unhappiness.
At any rate, when Bhutan moved from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, it also started to use gross national happiness (GNH) – which assesses “the collective wellbeing” of the population based on sustainable development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and good governance – instead of the “antiquated” gross national product (GNP) as its main development indicator.
To quantify the people’s wellbeing, the Center for Bhutanese Studies began by surveying some 8,000 randomly selected households using a questionnaire of more than 200 questions about their personal lives and feelings. That must have been torture.
In 2011, the “Kingdom of Happiness” sponsored a UN resolution, inviting other governments to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development”.
And the following year, Bhutan, along with a number of academic enthusiasts of the newly created “happiness industry”, presented the UNGA with “evidence from the new emerging science of happiness”, paving the way for the UN proclamation of March 20th as International Day of Happiness.
I find “happiness day” and “happiness science” rather contrived, defeating the whole point of happiness as the end goal of all human endeavour, as the Ancient Greeks and Romans wisely observed, be it through the pursuit of virtue and justice, or the pursuit of pure pleasure.
Either way, the pursuit of happiness is only possible through the happiness of pursuit, or so goes the cliche.
At any rate, the first annual World Happiness Report saw the light in 2012 under the auspices of the United Nations – arguably the most constipated and miserable organisation the world over!
But joking aside, the report seemed to zero in on two possible sources of happiness: subjective preferences, related to culture, community and environment; and objective factors relating to wealth, health, security, education, etc.
I suspect the latter more objective indicators weigh heavily in the report’s ranking, and go a long way to explaining why the culturally introverted and largely reserved Nordic and other European states continuously make it to the top of the list. They are seemingly more “content” than happy, as per their own studies and surveys.
Sadly, the ranking of “Kingdom of Happiness” has gone from low to lower during the years, descending from 79th to 97th position.
And the one country famously associated with happiness other than Bhutan, “Happy Yemen”, had clearly not gotten the memo that year, as it plunged into civil war and turmoil, drawing in a Saudi and Emirati-led military intervention that produced “the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century”.
On the upside, as the war entered its second year, the UAE established two ministers for happiness and tolerance, promoting virtue as a fundamental value of the state and society, while tightening its political and security grip.
That’s when George Orwell turned in his grave.
Still, after briefly falling to 28th place in 2016, the economically liberalised super-rich emirate remained ahead of its Arab peers for four consecutive years according to the Report’s index.
However, this year, the UAE was bypassed by the tiny, relatively poorer Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, which ranked at 21 on the world index.
Bahrainis to be sure, have been living under tight political and security control since the Arab Spring upheaval almost paralysed it 11 years ago, which prompted Saudi military intervention to help suppress the popular uprising.
So, it begs the question how is it that Bahrain came ahead of the likes of Spain and Italy, which ranked 29 and 31, respectively, and almost beat France – even if the French are famous for railing against anything and everything, including happiness. It is their national sport; their collective charm.
Bahrain did sign a “peace agreement” with Israel, though I doubt it brought the Bahrainis much joy as most of them were against “normalisation with the Zionist enemy”.
Which brings me to Israel, which leaped into the top 10, ranking ninth on this year’s happiness index, despite its violent system of apartheid, as documented by international human rights organisations. The worse the apartheid, the higher the rank!
I have long associated military occupation with happiness, especially after watching Pharell Williams shamelessly sing, Happy, to a shameless list of Hollywood A-list guests among the shameless Friends of Israeli Defense Forces, FIDF, in Los Angeles, while Israel was shamelessly pounding the Gaza Strip.
Perhaps, we finally know for sure why, as TIME magazine once tried to explain in a cover story “Israel doesn’t care about peace”. Well, because it is happier without it. Thanks in no small part to the miserable failure of Palestinian and Arab leadership, whose war-ridden states rank terribly poorly.
It is indeed remarkable how a country that expels, occupies, oppresses, imprisons and humiliates an entire people for decades and in close proximity, can be so freakishly happy. Is it delusion, indifference, sadism, racism, or what?
Bhutan, “The Land of the Thunder Dragon”, shows it could be a combination of factors.
In the years leading up to its obsession with happiness, the Bhutan military expelled about 100,000 Nepali-speaking people residing mostly in the impoverished south of the country, to pave the way for the monarch’s “one nation one people” vision. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s other vision was to marry four sisters, which he did happily and festively in 1988.
Despite its turn to democracy after the king’s abdication, the government has done little to rectify, compensate or reverse the dreadful ethnic cleansing. In a telling interview with Al Jazeera a dozen years ago, Bhutan’s prime minister denied it, justified it, and happily embraced it, all without flinching.
But the problem is bigger than Israel, Bhutan, and Bahrain or for that matter, Russia, China and the United States. It is about the prevailing international hypocrisy of happiness, preaching virtue and projecting violence, speaking of peace and waging war, proclaiming love and spreading hate, hugging trees and polluting the air.
Wellbeing may be achieved through “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, but only in tandem with, not at the expense of another individual, nation, race or gender or generation’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”.
Follow Al Jazeera English:
On happiness and hypocrisy – Al Jazeera English
What does the World Happiness Index really tell us about happiness?