THE just released World Happiness Report 2018 once again shows that Malaysians are a much happier society than ever before. Malaysia is ranked as the 35th happiest country in the world out of more than 155 countries.
Malaysia was ranked 42nd last year, a significant improvement of seven positions.
What’s more, Malaysia is now the happiest country among the Asian emerging economies, a great accomplishment that every Malaysian should be proud of.
In Asia, Malaysia is even happier than Japan and South Korea, which were ranked 54th and 57th.
The report is in the sixth edition and is published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Among Asean countries, Malaysia is just next to Singapore in matters of happiness. Malaysians’ level of happiness has been improving since 2015 when it was ranked 61st.
This year, the happiest country on the planet goes to Finland, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland.
On the other hand, the least happiest countries is Burundi, followed by the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania, Yemen, Rwanda, and Syria.
All top 10 happiest countries are also countries that are in the category of high-income nation, whereas all countries that are in the bottom 10 are low-income nations, according to World Bank classification. This points to the fact that there is correlation between economic growth and happiness.
But, measuring economic growth alone is not enough, since the world’s wealthiest economy, the US, is not even in the top 10 list.
In fact, America’s ranking has deteriorated, slipping four spots to 18th from the previous year. It could be due to the decline of the country’s social capital.
The same can be said about China and India. The two countries have enjoyed high growth rates but their rankings are not that encouraging, being placed 86th and 133rd.
Vietnam, which has one of the highest gross domestic product (GDP) growth in Asean (more than 6.5 per cent last year) took the 95th spot.
It appears income or production alone is not an adequate measure of a country’s wellbeing and cannot be equated with people’s wellbeing.
In fact, the inventor of the concept of GDP, Prof Simon Kuznet, put it beyond doubt: GDP is not designed to measure people’s wellbeing or quality of life.
At this juncture of Malaysia’s development journey, just a couple of years before it is declared a high-income developed nation, there is a need for our policymakers to put more emphasis in elevating people’s welfare, wellbeing, and quality of life.
One way of doing this is to focus on the report’s ranking as a measurement and goal of Malaysia’s long-term development agenda. In other words, the time has come to focus and measure what is worthwhile to the people, which is their wellbeing and happiness.
What makes Finland the happiest country in the world?
And, what causes Burundi to be the least happy nation?
Why is Malaysia placed at 35th and what can we do to improve it?
Clearly, Finland has a higher per capita income compared to Burundi.
Hence, to downplay the importance of economic growth and income level would be rather foolish.
But, there are other crucial dimensions of development that can contribute to the wellbeing of the people than just economic growth and income level.
And, according to the report, another factor that contributes to people’s wellbeing and happiness is freedom. Why does freedom matter?
Nobel Laureate in economics Prof Amartya Sen supports this argument.
In his book, Development as Freedom, Sen says freedom enables human capabilities to function optimally, thus boosting the happiness and wellbeing of the people.
For Sen, freedom ranges from basic needs such as being “adequately nourished” and “being free from avoidable disease” to one that is more advanced such as “being able to take part in the life of the community and having self-respect”. The expansion of individual freedom, he argues, must be seen as a social commitment.
The other two indicators for measuring people’s wellbeing and happiness are generosity and social support.
There is one factor that can boost the two elements in the context of Malaysia, and that is preserving and enhancing national unity.
As a multiracial society, the importance of social cohesion and unity cannot be taken for granted.
It would be useless if we achieve a high-income status when there is a lack of unity among us.
Former US presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, in his 1968 speech, highlighted the inadequacy of the national income system: “It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
To make our high-income and developed nation endeavour more meaningful, we must pursue and measure what is worthwhile, and that is happiness.
The writer is the director of the Asian Research Institute of Banking and Finance (ARIBF), Universiti Utara Malaysia and Visiting Research Fellow in Islamic Finance at OCIS, Oxford University