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World Happiness Report 2017

Bhutan—Less Happy Than Taiwan Now


Bhutan—Less Happy Than Taiwan Now

Source:Jianyin Chiu

Once the happiest country in the world, Bhutan's happiness ranking has dropped to 97th, lower than Taiwan. Why? What is the key to happiness?



Bhutan—Less Happy Than Taiwan Now

By Chunfang Chiang
web only

“Happiness was never as far and complicated as we imagined. It lies in everyday life,” commented Gwei Lun-mei (桂綸鎂), voice actress for the upcoming Taiwanese animated movie On Happiness Road (幸福路上). For Hsiao-Chi (小琪), the character she plays, life is full of perplexing situations, yet she learns from her mother and grandmother a relatively simple philosophy of happiness.

What exactly are the factors that determine happiness?

High Income?

Income, quality of work and life, mental and physical health are common research focuses on happiness. However, most of the research fails to filter out the cause-and-effect relationships among different factors. For example, those with a positive mindset are more likely to go well in school and work, perform better in work, have a higher income, and thus lead a “happy” life. The result of these economy-oriented studies can merely prove that there is a positive correlation between income and happiness. Yet which is the cause? Which is the effect? It cannot determine whether it was the high income or the positive mindset that led to happiness.

However, a field experiment carried out in rural Kenya by Haushofer, Reisinger and Shpiro did tell us something about happiness and income (unconditional income transfers).

The economists randomized the participants to the experimental group or the control group. Those in the experimental group either received $444 or $1,521 USD, an amount that might equaled the total value of property for some, while those in the control group got nothing. Results have shown that those who received the grant have responded with a significant increase in life satisfaction, while that of the control group had drastically dropped. Though those in the control group didn’t get any less paid, life conditions and income remained the same, upon learning that their neighbors have received a handsome grant, they grew unsatisfied with life. Fortunately, this external variation in life satisfaction gradually faded away as time went by.

The results proved one fact: Comparison is odious. Yet most of us can never get off the habit of comparing, and while we compare, we often put our focus on those who we think are better.

Why is Bhutan Less Happy Now?

Would one be happier living in his own world?

Starting from 1974, Bhutan has been measuring prosperity by its Gross National Happiness, encouraging its citizens to strive for happiness, not GDP. However, with its GDP falling behind other countries, can its GNH stay the same?

Recently, growth in rates of suicide and depression has become the most urgent problem facing the Bhutan government. In the latest World Happiness Report, Bhutan's happiness ranking has dropped to 97th out of 155 countries last year, while Taiwan ranked 33rd. Why is Bhutan less happy now? According to local doctors, factors that cause depression have multiplied as the country continues to develop, bringing up problems from urbanization, social cleavages, unemployment, drugs and alcohol abuse.

Bhutan lifted its ban on television in 1999, and later opened its doors to the Internet and smart phones. We can never be sure whether a world without television and Internet would make us happier, yet we know that it’s never easy to block them away in a world today.

In fact, Bhutan has been rather successful in economic growth lately. Its poverty rate decreased from 25% in 2003 to 2% in 2014, and its development of water power and tourism kept its economy growing steadily.

Yet development does not come without a cost. In some South Asian countries, such as India, Nepal, and Bengal, human trafficking has become a serious issue, and now Bhutan has become one of the centers of concerns, too.

Research has estimated that more than 2 million men, women and children around the world are trafficked each year, while 27 million are enslaved—two times the number 300 years ago. Instead of kidnapping victims with the use of violence, traffickers nowadays tend to use a more common channel—recruitment agencies. Victims are often those who suffer from a sense of relative deprivation, so desperate for a change that they are willing to expose themselves or their children to an extremely high risk. In spite of clearly knowing that the future these ‘agencies’ pictured for them is impossible and that they are risking themselves of being traded as slaves, many are still willing to take risk to seize any chance they have that would improve their current life conditions.

While absolute poverty is definitely one of the root causes of human trafficking, perception of relative deprivation is undeniably another. According to a research conducted in Nepal by Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, a higher perception of relative deprivation often leads to a propensity to higher-risk behavior. In the experiment, participants were asked about their household income with answer options in brackets designed to create a higher sense of deprivation for some participants. Results have shown that when multiple job options detailed with a pay and a risk (the possibility of work-related injuries) were later given to them, those who had been brought out a sense of deprivation are more likely to say ‘yes’ to jobs with a higher risk.

Imagination can be a double-edged sword. It can create happiness, but things often turn out to be different from what we imagine. Perhaps, life would be more simple and peaceful if the world still believes in the story of Chiang Kai-Shek being inspired by a small fish swimming against the current. Perhaps, our perception of deprivation could be lowered if we live a life cut off from the world.

Yet, curiosity is part of human nature, just as desire for a better life. As the voice actress of On Happiness Road Gwei Lun-mei (桂綸美) said, knowing more about this world does not always make us happier. While we are fighting for a better life, we think we are on our way to happiness but we might be in fact losing more than we gain.

Translated by Sharon Tseng.

Additional Reading

Embrace Happiness: How can Taiwan survive in a competitive world market and enable its citizens to find satisfaction with their lives?
Bhutan Wants Happiness – What does Taiwan Want?
What Color Best Captures the Mood of the World Today?