Sad bunch

By Editorial Board
March 22, 2023

March 20 is designated by the UN as the International Day of Happiness and is also the day the UN publishes its annual World Happiness Report, ranking countries by residents’ life evaluations. The 2023 annual report was rather surprising. Pakistan ranked higher than both India and Bangladesh in terms of happiness, contrary to what many would have assumed to be the case -- though Pakistan still ranked fairly low compared to the world as a whole, coming in at 108 out of 137 countries. We are apparently the happiest country in South Asia, with Sri Lanka also ranked lower than Pakistan at 112 and India and Bangladesh ranked at 126 and 118, respectively. How does a country on the verge of default, a barely functioning parliament and resurgent militancy manage to have happier people than two, comparatively, stable and growing economies?


Part of the answer might lie in the differences in data collection between the countries. The rankings are based on a three-year average of life evaluations that ask survey participants to rank their lives on a scale of zero to 10. The latest happiness report puts an asterisk next to Pakistan’s results, indicating that it was unable to collect survey information for 2022, meaning that our results are based on the 2020 and 2021 surveys. To put it simply, our nation’s data is incomplete. Though the report notes that year-to-year rankings are fairly consistent, 2022 was a particularly bad year even by our standards -- with superfloods and our economic problems reaching crisis levels. India and Bangladesh’s rankings include data for 2022, meaning all the angst caused by last year’s deadly monsoon and the economic aftershocks of the Russia-Ukraine war have been accounted for, unlike in our case.

Regardless, the report does show that the countries in our region are more alike than different. South Asia is unhappier than much of the world and there is a huge gap between us and the countries in the top 20. Despite our many differences, our countries are all known for their poor infrastructure, poor access to healthcare and education, abysmal gender parity and rampant inequality. In addition, our countries are among the world's most polluted, with Bangladesh having recently held the top spot and Pakistan also making it to the top five. The fact is that the neoliberal growth model, also something we all share, has delivered prosperity, health and happiness to those in the upper-echelons of our countries. Our wealth creation is top-heavy and progress for the middle classes and the poor has been modest to non-existent. Pollution is something that gets a lot of lip-service but little action. Four out of the five highest ranked countries, with Finland taking the top spot, are from Scandinavia, a region known for the emphasis its countries place on free healthcare and education, gender equality, environment and work-life balance. Furthermore, as global energy prices and interest rates continue to rise, the growth model our countries have is suddenly looking questionable. While only Sri Lanka has defaulted thus far, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all struggling with the highest inflation in years with no foreseeable relief. It is time for a rethink.