The national happiness index — which measures the public’s degree of satisfaction with their wellbeing — shows that the nation is still ranked in the upper-middle tier among the 37 countries assessed. However, the latest assessment of general wellbeing among Taiwanese raises questions over whether a higher degree of satisfaction really reflects a higher degree of happiness and who should take heed of and respond to the index’s results — the general public or the government.
On Friday, the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) released its gross national happiness index for the year, with Taiwan taking 18th place among 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), plus Russia and Brazil. Last year, Taiwan ranked 19th.
This year, Taiwan was rated 6.93 out of 10 (with 10 being happiest) in the index, which evaluates people’s psychological and physical wellbeing using a variety of metrics in 11 categories. Closer analysis of these metrics shows that Taiwanese feel happiest about “income and wealth,” followed by “personal security,” “housing conditions” and “jobs and earnings,” with the lowest score being “environmental quality.”
DGBAS officials said the results show that Taiwan performs better for material living conditions than in quality of life as compared with the other countries in the study.
The government started the index last year, claiming its introduction is part of its efforts to better perceive public wellbeing and complement GDP data as a measure of Taiwan’s success. However, the findings this year say that Taiwanese are most happy about their income and wealth, despite people’s persistent concerns about stagnant salaries. How can this be? With worries about rising housing prices, decreasing spending power, pensions and fear of jobs being lost to overseas companies, real-world experience gives reason to doubt the index’s veracity.
Like last year, Taiwan’s overall score outdid Japan’s 6.24 and South Korea’s 5.41, and is higher than that of other Asian areas assessed. Hong Kong and Singapore, which are not OECD nations, were not part of the index. However, are Taiwanese generally happier than Japanese and South Koreans? Or is this just a government plan to fool people by telling them that their lives are not too bad given that Japan is ranked 22nd and South Korea 28th in the index?
As dubious as the index’s results might be, a more important question is: Will the government put the index at the heart of its policymaking? One does not need to chronicle the government’s day-to-day operations to recognize that official gaffes and policy flip-flops are among the many reasons for the public’s faith in lawmakers being shaken. After the release of last year’s index, the public’s anxiety over the government’s incompetence, inefficiency and chaotic policymaking has only increased, and there has been no substantial progress made by the government to improve wages, jobs or housing issues. By the government’s very nature, one can expect the same results this year.
People do not need a government that designs and measures a national happiness index for the sake of it. If the government is just trying to fool people by talking about a happiness index rather than being responsible and responsive, then it needs to be changed. It might pay to remind those entrusted with leadership that GNH stands for “gross national happiness,” not “government needs help.”