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Why is Bhutan ranked so low in the World Happiness Report?

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People’s Democratic Party president Tshering Tobgay (centre) attends the ceremony to be appointed prime minister in Bhutanese capital Thimpu on July 27, 2013. AFP

Why is Bhutan ranked so low in the World Happiness Report?

Andrea Illy of the Ernesto Illy Foundation, part of the million-dollar coffee giant sponsoring the event of the World Happiness Report (WHR) launch on last Wednesday at the UN in New York, assured the audience that happiness is sipping the perfect coffee recipe.

John Clifton, the managing partner for Gallup Poll, the company responsible for the WHR survey, shared a touching prophecy when almost a century ago, their founder predicted that future of Gallup lay in tracking human happiness and not in political climate or market swings.

However, for Bhutan, one of the host nations for the event and the original author of the concept, it was another slip, with its ranking languishing at 95.

As one of the Bhutanese attending the high-powered event in the grand dining room of UN Headquarters, I could not help my frustration.

Are we really that bad? I can live with the Least Development Country label or the tag of the hidden Shangri-La, but to be jolted from supposedly being the happiest place on earth to a lowly 95th place was too much.

Where did we go wrong? And why are we so unhappy?

However, I realised that all is not lost because we have our own Gross National Happiness (GNH) survey that concluded that over 95 per cent of Bhutanese are happy.

So how does the WHR compare with our own GNH survey and the results?

The WHR happiness index is ranked through a Gallup survey on the simple questionnaire of how happy you are on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the happiest.

Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark are top five, scoring above 7.00, while Bhutan’s is 5.08.

Therefore, it is based on the ranking given by our own survey respondents of 2,000 Bhutanese.

The GNH survey done by the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) in 2015 that has a score of 6.88 would have ranked Bhutan at 20. So what is the gap between these two indices?

At the high-powered panel, the Vice President of Costa Rica relished her nation’s enviable 12th position because of the pristine environment and the free universal healthcare, while the top-ranked Scandinavian countries even pointed out that their social generosity of paying high taxes has actually reflected on the happiness of the people.

This further deepens my curiosity, since Bhutan is not only the only carbon negative country in the world but also a bastion of Mahayana Buddhism with the spirit of compassion as its doctrine.

This begs the question again on why then the Bhutanese are very difficult to please? However, I think before we address this question we need to first verify the methodology and ascertain its validity.

There seems to be an agreement on the format, methodology and the analysis of survey data between the World Happiness Report and the GNH. The point of disagreement seems to be the data.

When I contacted the CBS, the chief researcher, Dr Dorji Penjo was patient enough to explain to me that the CBS assessment is based on face-to-face interviews with 8,000 respondents.

WHR also had based on a similar interview process, though a much lesser number of respondents.

Why would a Bhutanese give two very different assessments to the same question, one that basically asks you to rank your happiness on a scale of one to 10?

One possibility pointed out by Dr Penjo was that CBS could not verify their data until the survey carried out by the Gallup Poll for the WHR.

There is no record of the survey’s implementation by Gallup in Bhutan (usually required to be approved by the National Statistical Bureau of Bhutan), and no Bhutanese came forward with any experiences of being surveyed by Gallup, despite such call to come forward when the issue was raised in parliament in 2018.

So could the Gallup survey data be all cooked up?

During the break, I walked up to John Clifton of Gallup and suggested that they need to compare notes with our CBS. He agreed. One can choose to ignore the report and not participate as some countries are doing.

For instance, I did not see anyone from the US, even though all experts on the panels were mostly from the US. Other giants like India and China were visibly absent.

For Bhutan, we do not have this option of ignoring the report because we are not only very small but we need to take ownership of the concept’s origin.

So, at this point, we first need to verify the data responsible for our low ranking.

This should be done sooner because subsequent WHR will continue to be published and unless we raise the issue we will continue with the same ranking.

Instead, a good suggestion is for WHR to validate the CBS-GNH survey report and use the same data rather than duplicating the work and wasting resources.

With this, as suggested by Dr Penjor, Bhutan’s ranking would jump to 20.

Therefore, the larger issue of why Bhutanese are very difficult to please may depend on which data we use for the World Happiness Report. Kuensel (Bhutan)/Asia News Network

Kinga Tshering is from Bhutan’s Institute of Happiness and from New York.

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