On the last day of the year, an obscure piece caught my attention on the front page of the Fiji Times Online (FTO). After perusing the article, languishing somewhat incongruously under the heading of Happy Days, what struck me most as an avid reader of the paper was the blind acceptance of the dubious claims without placing them in some context. The article by two local journalists borrowed heavily from the blogger and travel writer, Celeste Brash’s piece of 28 October 2014 for the Lonely Planet. Celeste identified ten reasons which, in her view, made Fiji one of the happiest countries. Although, not necessarily relying on it as her primary source, she alluded to a Win-Gallup survey which claimed 89% of Fiji people rated themselves as the happiest people on earth. She did not specify the report’s date, but she was referring to the 2012 survey which, by then, was already obsolete and two years old. (This can be verified because in an ABC radio interview with Melanie Arnost, Caz Tebbutt, the Managing Director of Tebbutt Research, confirmed and referred to their 2012 survey – the FTO article actually quoted from his similar interview with Radio New Zealand, not the ABC.) 

 The report’s findings have the potential to be an alluring shibboleth for Tourism Fiji. They should have thought of the ten reasons (and some more), but would still be wiser to pay more attention to Celeste’s list. The 2012 global poll in question was conducted by Gallup International and the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research, which, in turn, commissioned Tebbutt Research to handle the Fiji segment of the poll. The survey looked at only 54 countries out a total of some 189 to 196 – depending on who is recognised by whom at the various global fora. Their sample constituted about 28% of the recognised 193 UN states, but Tebbutt Research polled a mere 1,000 people living only within the urban centres of Viti Levu; hardly a representative sample as Fiji’s rural demographics are quite diverse, economically and socially.

 The poll specifically asked how happy the respondents were in themselves. They had to state if they were happy, unhappy or neither happy nor unhappy. This approach hardly provides an objective assessment of the subject group and, at best, confirms the actual opinions of the chosen respondents. Yet, the Managing Director of Tebbutt Research was happy to tell his radio host that Fiji scooped “the top spot of the happiest people in the world”. It was just as much about the marketability of the research entity as it was about its broader agenda.

 The latest 2014 Win/Gallup survey is even more bizarre: it relied on researchers asking a sample of people from 65 countries to rate their happiness level, and to indicate whether the ensuing year would be better or worse than the last. The respondents were then asked about their country’s economic prosperity, and whether they would go to war in the service of their country. Fiji turned out, again, by far as the happiest country in the world: 93 per cent of respondents stated they were either happy or very happy. Fiji was followed by Finland, where only 80 per cent stated they were contented. Of the face of it, these results defy expectations, appear to contradict anecdotal evidence and seem almost counterintuitive. In fact, the Oceania region as a whole rated among the least content, with 14 per cent stating they were either unhappy or very unhappy. More surprisingly, Africa turned out to be the happiest region in 2014 with 83 per cent of participants across the continent stating they were content, surpassing Asia where only 77 per cent confirmed they were happy.

 To add to the confusion, Colombia also claims to have topped the list as the world’s happiest country, according to WIN-Gallup. The survey known as the 2014 Barometer of Happiness and Hope, relied on a survey of 1,012 Colombians (out of a population of some 48 million); 86% of respondents self-reported as being “happy”, while only 2% reported they were “unhappy”. Colombia was followed by Fiji, Finland and Argentina in terms of self-reported happiness. In another poll, conducted by Gallup and Healthways Global, the Central American nation of Panama (with a population some 3.9 million) claims to have the most positive population. This survey however asked 133,000 people from 135 countries to rate their wellbeing in five categories: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. Panama topped four of the categories, whilst the neighbouring Costa Rica, was judged the second happiest country. In this survey, interestingly, Denmark came third. Clearly, one has to question the credibility of some of these polls, even after excluding most of the debris and thrash that overwhelm the internet.  

 To roil us even more, in terms of the UN’s first ‘World Happiness Report in 2012, Denmark was ranked first, and most Scandinavian countries dominated the top spots, with Finland taking second, Norway third, and Sweden seventh, whilst the US and UK were 11th and 18th respectively. Although European countries were extremely well represented in the top ten, being European did not guarantee happiness. This landmark UN survey of the state of global happiness was based on interviews with 1,000 people over the age of 15 in each of the 155 countries surveyed.

 The second ‘World Happiness Report’ released in September 2013 went further and delved in more detail into the analysis of the global happiness data, and examined trends over time whilst breaking down each country’s score into its component parts, to enable citizens and policy makers to easily understand their country’s ranking. It also drew on other major initiatives to measure well-being, such as the OECD and UNDP’s Human Development Report. It found six factors explained three-quarters of the variation in annual national average scores over time and among countries: real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. The report was quite comprehensive and found that the top five countries in order of ranking were: Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden.

 Denmark is repeatedly named the happiest country on earth. The Happiness Research Institute, a Copenhagen-based think tank’s recent report “The Happy Danes – Exploring the reasons behind the high levels of happiness in Denmark” identified eight reasons for Danish happiness: Danes have the highest level of trust in the world (they even leave their babies in strollers outside shops and cafés while they ran errands); a high level of social security; high levels of wealth; a high level of freedom derived from free university education and gay rights; great work-life balance with a workplace that is characterized by autonomy and flexibility, allowing time with family and friends; a well-developed democracy with a high level of political participation and good governance; a low level of corruption; and finally, a strong civil society that ensures high quality social interactions amongst its citizens. The Danish survey was not only substantial but aimed for greater objectivity; it relied on some 10,000 Danes to respond to questions about their happiness, including interviews with an array of the world’s leading happiness experts, plus a comprehensive study of academic papers to explain international differences in subjective well-being.  

 To provide some context, the discussion of happiness gathered momentum following the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, also known as “Rio+20” in June 2012, exactly twenty years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio. “Rio+20” is the abridged version of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, where country representatives debated a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and set targets for diverse issues such as resource use, renewable energy and food security. But they wanted to broaden the ongoing debates on happiness and wellbeing; some even saw the Rio summit “as a unique opportunity to rethink the current perception of growth and consumption.” The summit managed to constructively engage world leaders, together with numerous participants from the private sector, NGOs and other non-state actors with the ultimate aim of reducing poverty, advancing social equity and ensuring environmental protection in an already over-crowded planet. It was noted that from a population of over seven billion, some two billion went hungry every day, and a billion and half did not have access to basic services. The upshot was over $513 billion in pledges to build a more sustainable future – one that most states saw as desirable.

 To this end 31 March was declared the UN’s International Day of Happiness, 31 March 2013 being the first. More significantly, the gathering provided the impetus for a collective effort to recognize that measuring progress in monetary terms alone was woefully inadequate in the 21st century. The needs of societies had to be balanced with environmental concerns; however, setting sustainable development priorities is far more complicated than production of material goods. It called for the recognition by all countries that happiness entails much more than could reasonably be encapsulated by the familiar concept of GDP. The UN committed to exploring alternatives to GDP for measuring progress, akin to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH). The UN position was that “A profound shift in attitudes is underway all over the world. People are now recognizing that ‘progress’ should be about increasing human happiness and wellbeing, not just growing the economy at all costs. All 193 United Nations states have adopted a resolution calling for happiness to be given greater priority and March 20 has been declared the International Day of Happiness — a day to inspire action for a happier world.”

 Over recent decades, a broader movement had been highlighting the major shortcomings of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the key measure of progress or developmental indicator. Three alternatives, in particular, stand out: The UN itself pushed for the Human Development Index, the New Economics Foundation created the Happy Planet Index, and Redefining Progress developed the Genuine Progress Indicator

 The reality is that happiness is multidimensional and difficult to measure on a single scale. Different people derive happiness from different sources for different reasons: political, cultural, environmental, psychological and regional elements have to be considered. So how do we shift the current paradigms and arrive at a consensus? The UN is well informed and understands the difficult task ahead. The global community has the tools now; several in fact, to arrive at a better measure of national development, economic growth, stability and happiness. Some nations are already committed to adequately balancing their economic activity, ecological footprint and level of human happiness. Clearly, promotion of endless economic growth is not a viable policy, nor is it environmentally sustainable. The rich 20% can maintain their lifestyle and comfort zones so long as the poor 80% remains poor.

 In sum, regardless of their obvious limitations, the surveys and reports such as the World Happiness Report are still worth the effort, if only to provide a counterweight to GDP per capita as the measure of progress and well-being. Regrettably, most UN member states pay lip-service to the notion of promoting happiness and well-being. The major 21st century powers will have to find ways to lessen their economists’ obsession with GDP and growth fetishism. Until then, one can take the above findings as ‘feel good’ statements, which may even make some people very happy. But unless officialdom adopts consistent, alternative measurements of progress to GDP, they will remain just empty platitudes but, for now, no useful purpose is served by vilifying the messenger!

 Sydney, December 2014