Bhutan was once praised as one of the happiest countries in the world, but due to the materialism and competition that has followed the penetration of Western culture in recent years, people’s sense of happiness has quickly collapsed. Mexico is at the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) happiness index, but people’s subjective sense of happiness is ranked at No. 10.
During the 1970s and 1980s, when Taiwan’s economy grew rapidly, there was a strong sense of happiness. Although the older generations long for those days, not many want to return to that era. Happiness, then, is hard to define and yet it lies at the heart of our pursuits.
On Aug. 30, the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS) released Taiwan’s first Gross National Happiness index. To “get on track” with the international community, the index was compiled based on the 24 indicators in 11 categories of the Your Better Life Index of the OECD, which is sometimes called “a club for the rich.”
The results showed that Taiwan ranks 19th, in the middle among the OECD’s 34 member states and two partner states, and enjoys a “moderate level” of happiness. Interestingly, the ranking is higher than Japan’s and South Korea’s.
The OECD is an organization for developed countries so the government is content to see it operating here. However, looking at the depressed state of the nation’s economy, the results are strange — is it possible that Taiwan is fourth in the world in terms of “income and wealth?”
The DGBAS has always been strict with its statistics, so there is no reason to doubt the results. Still, a deeper reading shows there is little cause for excitement. Several other surveys have showed Japan and South Korea lag behind Taiwan in terms of people’s sense of happiness, partly due to their high suicide rates.
What measures can Taiwan take in response to the survey?
In the past, a happiness index was just a matter of academic research. Experts discovered that people’s sense of happiness does not necessarily increase as the economy grows — a rich lifestyle often has a negative impact on happiness: Watching too much TV can result in deteriorating personal relationships, living in a tiny apartment in a big city can make a person feel insignificant, traffic jams can be frustrating, neighbors are often strangers because people are too busy, and an excess of food is making us obese and threatening our health.
The design of the OECD’s index is fundamentally flawed, because it overlooks subjective happiness. Surprisingly, the level of “subjective satisfaction” is only one of many items of the index. It thus ignores the fact that subjective satisfaction is the result of a “chemical reaction” between all objective conditions and psychological and environmental factors. The government should therefore focus on the level of and changes in the public’s subjective satisfaction.
If we look at subjective satisfaction, Taiwan’s ranking drops to 25th and in a preparatory survey conducted in October last year it was 34th, almost at the very bottom among OECD member states. This means that there is room for improvement.
As Taiwan learns from other countries and tries to understand its level of happiness, it shows that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his government are determined to improve policy effectiveness.
The real value of the national happiness index is how it is used to adjust government policy so that the nation’s happiness can improve.
Tu Jenn-hwa is director of the Commerce Development Research Institute’s business development and policy research department.
Translated by Eddy Chang