The 2023 World Happiness Index has placed India at the 126th spot, up 10 places from the 136th spot in 2022.
But this is not the complete truth.
Last year the index had 147 countries and we ranked 136th. This year it has 137 countries and we are ranked 126th.
In other words, we are still 11th from the bottom.
The index ranked 137 countries across six parameters. Evidently, we are still not as happy as Bangladesh (ranked at #118), Myanmar (#117), Pakistan (#108), Palestine (#99), Iraq (#98), Hong Kong (#82), etc.
We have specifically mentioned these countries, as they have been in the news in the last few years for reasons that do not point to a peaceful, safe or happy state.
But there you go. We continue to be worse off than them it seems.
The Problem with the World Happiness Index
The 2023 index still suffers from the problems that plagued previous rankings.
Like we wrote last year, these problems are inherent and discussions on the index shouldn’t be anything but how flawed indices like these have created a biased view of most countries around the world.
Considering that India is beginning to rank in the top 10 economies/countries lists, such a biased view is particularly damaging and deters any attempt to present a more clear unbiased view of our country or any other nation for that matter. One can be sure to find questionable news media in foreign countries lapping it up to preach to their self-righteous choir about the ‘The ugly truth behind India’, or some other equally banal headline.
This is when the index comes from the United Nations (the report is published by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network). As a sceptic may say, ‘is it any wonder the UN has been bypassed by more powerful collectives like the G-7, G-20, NATO, ASEAN, etc. over the last few decades?’
Heart in Right Place
What is surprising about the report is that its heart is in the right place. It seeks to identify the habits, institutions and material conditions that produce a society with higher well-being. But where it errs is in making assumptions that questions like, “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” are likely to elicit correct answers. They discount the fact that even a simple question like the above is more likely to produce different answers based on the visible and invisible social and cultural patterns that pervade everyday life.
Think of it this way, if you ask the question, ‘Overall, how satisfied are you with your life these days?’, to a middle-level manager earning a 6-figure salary and to a casual daily wage earner, you are likely to get different answers. Averaging these two answers is an affront to both.
The report has done some commendable work in this regard. It has measured the differences in happiness between the upper and lower halves of society. This is a far better indicator of what the index intends to achieve – serve as a guidepost for countries to better the conditions of their people – than the rankings themselves.
Top 12 Countries with the Lowest Happiness Gap Between the Top and Bottom Halves
Barring Afghanistan which ranks at the top for low happiness gap between the top and bottom halves, the top 12 countries are:
- Netherlands: 1.787
- Finland: 1.917
- Iceland: 2.107
- Belgium: 2.202
- Sweden: 2.276
- Israel: 2.339
- Denmark: 2.349
- Luxembourg: 2.374
- France: 2.500
- Norway: 2.521
- New Zealand: 2.536
- Tajikistan*: 2.594
(India ranks 125th with a score of 4.640)
* Average of 2020 & 2021 numbers. Numbers for 2022 for this year’s rankings are not available
Simplicity of Surveys vs Nuanced Reality
As of now, the World Happiness Index is based on simplistic surveys. Real life is more nuanced.
For example, the index suffers from what is called the Law of Small Numbers.
This Law of Small Numbers is the incorrect belief or bias that small samples are likely to be highly representative of the population from which they are drawn, which is what would happen with large sample sizes. This leads to generalisations that are derived solely from a small sample size and do not reflect the correct picture. There is enough criticism of creating indices from small sample sizes in statistical theory. What is surprising is that the index is published by the United Nations, a body that should have had enough statisticians to highlight that the index is flawed and the simplistic Gallup Poll surveys should be put where they belong – in the trash can.
This is What is Needed
For this year’s report, the index publisher, UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, did a survey called ‘State of Social Connections 7-country survey’. Here they used ‘Gallup, Meta and a group of academic advisors’ to conduct a detailed survey on the quality and quantity of people’s social interactions.
The seven countries in the poll were Brazil, Egypt, France, Indonesia, India, Mexico and the USA.
This small but in-depth survey reported ‘high levels of social connectedness and social support, generally almost twice as high as reports of loneliness, even during the third year of COVID-19 disruptions to social life’.
A thing to note here is that for all seven countries, the overall satisfaction with social relationships averaged 3.33, with the national scores ranging from 3.2 to 3.4.
Such relatively deeper studies help everyone to understand what is going right and what needs correction.
This is not to say, we don’t have problems. We will be the first (or maybe second, third or tenth looking at self-righteous Indians in social media) to admit we have a long way to go but rankings such as these are not doing us any favour.
The index should not look to please popular media. Rather, it should be made better. Rankings based on differences in levels of happiness between the rich and the poor of each country, or the differences in happiness levels between the rich and the poor of different countries are much better comparisons and ranking numbers. Highlighting these differences would make countries think and find answers. Giving them a number tag is simply pandering to the masses. The index is not meant for that.