Bhutan’s ‘not so happy’ people leave it ranked mid-way in World Happiness Report

PM acknowledges Bhutanese people are not necessarily the happiest people on earth


July 2011 saw a major diplomatic coup for Bhutan when a Bhutan sponsored resolution on measuring and using happiness to guide government policies was passed by the UN General Assembly.

Bhutan’s reputation as a ‘happy country’ which was already much talked about before the resolution was further strengthened.

However, ironically one of the major outcomes of this resolution which is the annual World Happiness Report 2015 has ranked Bhutan 79 out of the 158 countries. The report had been published earlier in 2012 and 2013 but this was the first time this year that Bhutan was included in the report.

Interestingly, at the time of the resolution there was strong domestic criticism including in the media that Bhutan had to solve its many own problems of economic development, unemployment, youth problems, social problems etc before telling the rest of the world to be happy.

Bhutan has been placed even below countries like civil war torn Libya (63), corrupt and conflict ridden Nigeria (78) and just a couple of places above Pakistan (81).

One major difference about the report is that unlike indexes which have pre-assigned preferences like Legatum Prosperity Index for income and Happy Planet Index for environment it instead focuses on Subjective Well Being (SWB) which directly measures what people feel about their state of happiness.

In short it assigns more importance to and measures how people feel about their lives then giving pre-assigned and fixed indexes.

It says that the current GNH index of Bhutan uses SWB only as a small and fixed part of its overall index.

The report claims to have a sample size of around a 2,000 people per country for countries like Bhutan which have been measured in the report for the first time.

Explaining the report’s preference for the SWB method it says that it attaches fundamental importance to the evaluations that people make of their own lives. “This gives them a reality and power that no expert-constructed index could ever have, “says the report.

“For a report that strives for objectivity, it is very important that the rankings depend entirely on the basic data collected from population-based samples of individuals, and not at all on what we think might or should influence the quality of their lives,” adds the report.

The report says that alternative indexes depend importantly, but to an unknown extent, on the index-makers’ opinions about what is important. This makes it hard to treat such an index as an overall measure of well-being or even to work out the extent to which variations in individual components are affecting overall scores.

The six key indicators looked at by the report are Gross Domestic Product per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble, trust as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity as measured by recent donations adjusted for differences in income.

Bhutan’s contribution is briefly acknowledged in the beginning of the report which states that it all started from the July 2011 happiness resolution in the UN followed by a High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well Being.

It also says that the initial World Happiness Report of 2012 reviewed the scientific understanding of the measurement, explanation of subjective well-being, and presented a wide range of internationally comparable data, based on Gallup World Poll data from 2005-2011 for 156 countries. It says there were two parts to that Report. Part II presented three case studies. One of them was a full presentation of the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness framework.

In response to a question from the writer at the monthly ‘meet the press’, the Prime Minister Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay while admitting to not having read the full report said that Bhutanese people are not necessarily the happiest people in the world.

He said, “We want to project ourselves as being a very happy people but while in some cases we may be very happy but we cannot be so in other areas especially in the age of globalization and social media. We have our very own challenges of economy, unemployment, high expectations of democracy and other areas that will change happiness levels.”

The PM said that with Bhutan being ranked only two places above Pakistan he did not want to make any judgment on Pakistan.

Lyonchhen said that as far as Bhutan is concerned the focal point for GNH is the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS) and they should look at the report and find out why Bhutan was ranked as such. He said the CBS itself has already done studies in the past and was already conducting a national survey of its own.

Despite efforts this paper was unable to get a reaction from CBS on the report.

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