UN survey says Nepalis are happiest in South Asia, but experts express doubt

The report is based on the responses of around 1,000 people from each country, regardless of their population size.

Binod Ghimire

Binod Ghimire

The Kathmandu Post


Anish Regmi/TKP

March 23, 2022

KATHMANDU – Inflation has been on the rise. Governance is not up to the mark. Political wrangling is the common feature. There is no improvement on the corruption perception index. Government service delivery has remained poor. Unemployment rate is high. The pandemic devastation was immense. Almost all economic indicators are down. Yet, Nepalis do not appear to be unhappy.

The recent World Happiness Report has listed Nepal as the happiest country in South Asia, ranking it 84th, way ahead of Bangladesh (94), Pakistan (121), Sri Lanka (127), India (136) and Afghanistan (146). China, the northern neighbour, has been ranked 72nd, way above Nepal.

A section of Nepalis was quick to take to social media to celebrate Nepal’s ranking. But there were some voices questioning what actually makes Nepalis happy.

The report is a publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network that draws on global survey data from people in about 150 countries. The report is based on the Gallup World Poll, which asks respondents to evaluate their current life as a whole using the mental image of a ladder, with the best possible life for them as a ten and worst possible as a zero. Each respondent provides a numerical response on this scale, referred to as the Cantril ladder.

Started in 2002, the report published on Friday is the 10th series by the network.

Dambar Chemjong, head of the Central Department of Anthropology at Tribhuvan University, wonders if the report reflects the actual situation.

“That Nepal has been on the top of the list among South Asian countries seems to be rather problematic,” said Chemjong. “A survey should give the real picture to have its reliability enhanced.”

The concept of the happiness report was developed after a debate that progress in the economic indicators alone does not measure the happiness of the people and wellbeing and personal choices in life are equally important.

At least the life of the people has to change for good for them to get happier, which doesn’t seem to be happening, say anthropologists and sociologists.

Finland, for the fifth consecutive year, has topped the latest rankings. The other main Nordic countries, once again, are ranked in the top ten, well ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Though the report’s authors describe the year as “lamentable”, they have said people’s trust in each other and confidence in their governments were key factors in this year’s rankings.

Critics, however, say the root of the problem might be in the sample size and the people surveyed.

The report is based on the responses of around 1,000 people from each country, irrespective of their population size.

According to Chemjong, asking respondents to provide a numerical figure on a scale of zero to ten is quite technical, which may not provide the real picture.

“What actually constitutes happiness? Some people in Nepal seem to be happy because KP Sharma Oli was ousted from power and others are sad for the same reason,” said Chemjong. “The fact remains the same, nothing much has changed even after Sher Bahadur Deuba has come to power.”

The report, however, is not based on just one factor. The authors have determined six variables—GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy at birth, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perception of corruption.

During the survey, the respondents are asked to assess their life evaluations along with the positive and negative emotions they have experienced.

Chemjong says as Nepalis in general are fatalists by nature, the respondents might have presented only the rosy sides—or positive emotions.

“Nepalis don’t generally show their pain to strangers (surveyors) and often tend to portray that everything is hunky dory,” he said. “This could also be the reason for Nepal to fare better.”

The Human Development Index prepared by the United Nations is considered the most comprehensive report in measuring the quality of lives. Nepal’s position remains low in the HDI though it is increasing over the years. In 2019, Nepal was ranked 147th among 189 countries with a score of 0.587, putting Nepal in the medium human development category.

Before the pandemic, every day 1,500 Nepalis, on an average, were flying out of the country in search of employment, especially to the Gulf countries and Malaysia. As flights have resumed and several destination countries have opened up, more Nepalis are seeking to go abroad for jobs. The crowd at the Department of Passport is also an indication. However, the service delivery is so poor that people have to stand in line for hours for four to five days to acquire their passports. Service delivery at almost all government offices remains the same.

The pandemic in 2021 confined Nepalis to their homes for most of the year and led to loss of employment and businesses. Nepal’s economic growth shrunk. The second wave hit the country hard when people were being turned away from hospitals for a lack of beds, ventilators and oxygen cylinders. As many as 8,000 people lost their lives to Covid-19 in 2021.

“There is no reason to cherish the report because it doesn’t say why Nepalis are happy,” said Suresh Gautam, who teaches sociology of development at the Kathmandu University School of Education. “There has not been any significant increase in the size of gross domestic product, one of the key measures of economic performance and development. Political situation remains the same. Service seekers suffer everywhere. Not much has been done to change people’s livelihoods.”

One of the key findings, which the authors have called “remarkable”, is the global upsurge in benevolence in 2021 that saw Covid-19 devastating the world.

“This benevolence has provided notable support for the life evaluations of givers, receivers, and observers, who have been gratified to see their community’s readiness to reach out to help each other in times of need,” says the report. “In every global region, there have been large increases in the proportion of people who give money to charity, help strangers, and do voluntary work in every global region.”

The report has credited Bhutan for the growing international interest in happiness, but it has not ranked the country this time because “the Gallup did not survey the country in recent years.”

Some sociologists say rather than happy, Nepalis might be “content”.

Guman Sing Khatri, a lecturer of sociology at Tribhuvan University, says happiness is subjective.

“How the questionnaire was designed and how the surveyors put it before respondents also affect the results,” he said. “And respondents might have said that they are happy also because unlike in the past Nepal is largely peaceful and there has been some social and economic transformations.”

Gautam of the Kathmandu University, however, says there is nothing wrong in being happy, but what has led people to be happy is the question.

“The major concern is whether we should jump to the conclusion and celebrate the happiness ranking,” said Gautam. “Or shall we use our critical consciousness as well?”

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