How do you measure happiness? CBS is struggling to find answers

Published On: September 12, 2019 06:15 AM NPT By: SHREE RAM SUBEDI

KATHMANDU, Sept 12: The government's desire to measure happiness is moving at a slow pace due to the lack of homework and planning. The government has declared to conduct an integrated happiness survey this year in line with its slogan of “Prosperous Nepal and Happy Nepali” and budget was allocated for the ongoing fiscal year. A steering committee and another technical committee are to be formed to begin the work.

A subjective study to measure people's happiness and wellbeing is not an easy task, say officials at the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and National Planning Commission (NPC).

Beyond a draft concept paper and two internal meetings, the project has not moved forward. Statisticians are having a hard time developing and finalizing variables and indicators to measure human happiness, which differ across time, culture and geography.

“It's a huge task to find a common definition of happiness in a society which is diverse in many ways,” agree officials. The statistical authority dedicated to collecting, organizing and analyzing the scientific data is, for the first time, facing a tough task to figure out quantifiable indicators because the task is beyond its conventional expertise.

Experts suggest wider consultations and sufficient homework before the project is initiated.

“A parachute-like methodology and closed-end questionnaire may be unable to reflect the human mood,” says Binod Pokharel, a professor of anthropology at the Tribhuvan University, adding that measuring happiness, life satisfaction and quality of life all are relative terms.

“Happiness does not have a singular definition; it means different to different places, societies, cultures and peoples,” he added. An ethnographic inquiry can be a unique window to understanding the fundamental questions related to human happiness and prosperity and to know what it means to be human, said Pokharel.

“It's a benchmark baseline study, and its acceptability—both at home and abroad--would rely on its robust strategy,” argues economist Dr Gobinda Bahadur Thapa. “A mere popularity stunt would dilute the outcome, and is not warranted.” He suggests inviting international experts to work full time to complete the work.

Dr Ram Kumar Phuyal, an NPC member, is steering the process, and agrees that the work requires the rigor and expertise. “Every measure for well-being is imperfect, arbitrary and subject to criticism. Let's wait before we criticize the project. It's a trend that counts and not the headline figure.”

The government, in its 15th development plan, envisions prosperity and happiness as the founding pillar of the planning process. A total of four goals for prosperity and six goals for happiness are mentioned in the document, which have been further reduced to 33 indicators to quantify the results on prosperity and happiness. According to the plan, the six long-term goals for happiness include well-being and decent life; safe, civilized and just society; healthy and balanced environment; good governance; comprehensive democracy; and national unity, security and dignity.

Though new to Nepal, the task is familiar to Bhutan, which is considered the birthplace of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a term that attempts to record the holistic approach of development philosophy, beyond the notion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Bhutan has developed nine key domains and 33 indicators to measure GNH. The nine domains include psychological well-being; good governance; living standard; community vitality; ecological diversity; resilient health and education; time use; cultural diversity; and resilience. Three category of happiness—extremely, deeply and narrowly happy is developed in Bhutan, with separate thresholds, according to the Center for Bhutanese Study and GNH.

In July 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution asking member countries to measure happiness of their people and use the data to help guide their policies.

Also, the United Nations Sustainable Development Network has been publishing a World Happiness Report annually since 2012. The report reflects the global happiness showing how happy their citizens are in 156 countries. The survey details happiness and its evolution over the past dozen years—with a focus on technologies, social norms, conflicts and government policies that have driven those changes. The survey is based on Cantril ladder or the “self-anchoring scale,” which was initially invented by Hadley Cantril, an American psychologist and pioneer of public opinion research.

With the value ranging from 0 to 10, Finland tops the happiness rank with 7.7 score in 2019 report while South Sudan appears at the bottom with a score of 2.8.Nepal ranks 100/156, with a score of 4.9.

For the proposed study, the sample design and survey should take care of the global good practices and similar experiences elsewhere, suggest experts.

“We will finalize the sample design and questionnaire after consulting with related experts and learning from other countries, “says Ram Hari Gaire, planning director at CBS.

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