Illusory happiness

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE recently released UN-sponsored World Happiness Report 2018 ranks Pakistan 75th out of 156 countries in terms of how happy their citizens are. That is progress. Last year, we stood at the 80th position. There has been rejoicing at what is seen as Pakistan’s superiority in the ranking table above all its neighbours which includes China and India.

This made me wonder because statistics — objectively compiled one presumes — have a different story to tell. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the author of the report, bases its findings on six indicators, namely, income per capita, life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom and corruption. At least two of these are calculated objectively by many UN agencies (World Bank and UNDP).

Pakistan is way behind its neighbours in per capita income and life expectancy. According to their data, per capita income is said to be $1,441 and life expectancy at birth is 66 years. The corresponding figures for India are $1,852 and 68 years. For China, they are $8,583 and 76 years.

A person who is anxious about his next meal cannot be happy.

In other words, the happiness rankings are based more on the people’s perception of the state of their satisfaction that may not necessarily match reality. When I probed Gallup about their survey which formed the basis of the report, I was informed that their sample size was 1,600 which Gallup described as “national representative” — a bit difficult to believe given Pakistan’s diversity and size of its population (208 million, according to the 2017 census). The interviews were conducted face-to-face in Urdu and the rural areas were also covered, unlike in the earlier years.

This gives rise to scepticism about the accuracy of the answers given. Empirical observation also points in another direction. Interpersonal communication can be a major challenge. The survey was conducted in Urdu which is not the language of most people in Pakistan. One cannot be certain how much Urdu the respondents would understand, especially in the rural areas.

Officials from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics once told me that it is not easy for its enumerators to get people to give accurate information for the household surveys the PBS conducts periodically. Hamza Alavi, the academic, who did groundbreaking studies on the biradari systems in a village in Punjab, confirmed the trait one encounters in work of this kind. He once described to me the length to which he had to go to win the people’s confidence to get them to talk candidly about their personal matters. He said that the common man in our society conventionally gives the reply that he senses is expected of him. Did Gallup encounter similar problems?

The methodology used is quite complex. The Frequently Asked Questions section on the Happiness website tell us, “The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the poll. This is called the Cantril Ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale.” This may have puzzled many respondents.

True, money doesn’t lead to happiness. But a person who is mostly anxious about his next meal cannot be happy. Similarly, a life expectancy of 66 is an improvement on the lower figures of yesteryears. But this does not mean that all these years will be a period of blooming health given our shoddy healthcare system and living standards.

We are also plagued by the biggest enemy of happiness — inequity. The indecent and ostentatious display of the wealth of the ‘one per cent’ only creates frustration. This is further enhanced by the media. This has not been taken into account at all.

Culture and fatalism also have much to do with popular attitudes. No ‘good Muslim’ will question his lot in life. The general belief is that it is ungrateful not to be satisfied with whatever one has been endowed with. This leads us to the key question: what are such surveys designed to achieve?

The American Declaration of Inde­pendence recognised as inalienable the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But with the results so visibly skewed, it only leads to complacency among the privileged and the rulers whose duty it is to look after the underprivileged. Such findings absolve them of their responsibilities.

The sixth World Happiness Report allots Islamabad 58 points more than India which gladdens many hearts in Pakistan. Even China has been left behind by 11 points. Iran trails us by 31 points. The natural response of the managers of our economy would be, ‘Oh they are so happy in their present state, we should have no reason to worry’. Or is this a psychological tool to silence the public with?

Source: Dawn