Asia-Pacific Analysis – Happiness and the Environment

By Crispin Maslog

Asia-Pacific Analysis – Happiness and the environment
UN should declare environmental quality as a factor in UN Happiness Index ahead of Earth Day.

Two Asia-Pacific countries — Australia and New Zealand — figure in the top ten 2018 list of the world’s happiest countries drawn up by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network of the UN.

Released ahead of International Day of Happiness on 20 March, the list rates Finland as the happiest country in the world, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Australia.

“These countries enjoy clean, healthy environments, although this is not yet recognised in the current criteria for measuring happiness”

Crispin Maslog

The report ranks countries on a happiness index based on key variables that support well-being: income (GDP per capita), freedom to make choices, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.

Table 1. World Happiness Report’s top 10 happiest countries 

Country Ave. Ladder Score*
1. Finland 7.632
2. Norway 7.594
3. Denmark 7.555
4. Iceland 7.495
5. Switzerland 7.487
6. Netherlands 7.441
7. Canada 7.328
8. New Zealand 7.324
9. Sweden 7.314
10. Australia 7.272

*Respondents were asked to evaluate the quality of their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10.

What do the top ten happiest countries have in common?

These are small countries with socialist-democratic governments that allow great leeway to individual freedoms; have relatively homogeneous populations that are economically and socially developed; have well-developed social welfare programmes for their senior citizens; and these countries enjoy clean, healthy environments, although this is not yet recognised in the current criteria for measuring happiness.

Other factors for happiness

Moving forward, I suggest that the UN Happiness Index Committee adds the quality of the environment — now being threatened by overpopulation and economic development — as one of the major criterion affecting happiness.

I think highlighting the role of a clean, healthy and safe environment in people’s contentment would be a significant addition to the criteria for happiness as we move closer to the celebration of Earth Day on 22 April.

This criterion of environment can be subdivided into population density, personal security, garbage management, air quality, water quality, forest areas, and parks, and security from environmental disasters and hazards like increasing vulnerability to flooding, landslides, or drought due to climate change.

The overpopulated countries of Asia — China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan — with their high population densities, polluted air and water, disappearing forests, diminishing flora and fauna and non-existent nature parks (China excluded), will never move up in that happiness index unless they manage their populations and upgrade their environments.

In this criterion of environmental health, Indonesia would do well if it starts an aggressive programme to preserve its forests, now under siege by commercial interests, especially the rubber and oil palm plantations. The same goes for Papua New Guinea’s once virgin forests, which are being cut down for lumber.

Ten happiest in Asia-Pacific

The top ten happiest countries in the Asia-Pacific in 2018 are (world rankings in parenthesis) are New Zealand (8), Australia (10), Taiwan Province of China (26), Singapore (34), Malaysia (35), Uzbekistan (44), Thailand (46), Japan (54), South Korea (57) and Kazakhstan (60).

Table 2. World Happiness Report’s top 10 happiest countries in the Asia-Pacific region

Country Ave. Ladder Score
1. New Zealand 7.324
2. Australia 7.272
3. Taiwan Province of China 6.441
4. Singapore 6.343
5. Malaysia 6.322
6. Uzbekistan 6.096
7. Thailand 6.072
8. Japan 5.915
9. South Korea 5.875
10. Kazakhstan 5.790

Except for Japan, these Asian countries have small populations. All these countries are economically doing well and above the upper middle income countries. And all ten countries have a relatively clean environment because of surrounding seas and mountains, which absorb and/or disperse the dust and carbon monoxide which come from civilised living.

The most populated countries in the region are found somewhere in the middle of the pack: Pakistan (75th in the world), China, with its 1.4 billion people (86th in the world), and Indonesia (96th in the world). India, with its 1.3 billion people, is near the bottom of the list (133rd in the world out of the 156 countries surveyed).

Origin of happiness index

This happiness index began with Bhutan. This tiny country in the Himalayas, which came in 97th place in the 2018 Happiness Index, first suggested happiness as a metric for its people. Bhutan spearheaded the adoption of the resolution titled, “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” in 2011, a motion that eventually led to the observance of the International Day of Happiness every 20 March. This is to recognise “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives”.

This 2018 report is the sixth to come out since 2012. The rankings of the world’s happiest countries follow an analysis of data from surveys in 156 countries taken from 2015 to 2017.

This year, a parallel study of immigrant happiness was based on surveys of 117 countries covering the years 2005-2015.

The first World Happiness Report was published in April 2012. Since then, the UN has considered happiness as the measure of social progress and the goal of public policy.

A personal note

On a personal note, I have been living on the slopes of a dormant volcano, the 4,244-hectare Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve in the small campus town of Los Baños, province of Laguna, the Philippines, for the past 36 years. This dormant volcano has given birth to hot springs, which are all over the place. The town is also home to two state universities — University of the Philippines Los Baños and University of the Philippines Open University.

Los Baños (population: 112,000) is unique in the Philippines because it has been declared by the Philippine national government as a special science and nature city. It is home to three international science institutions—the International Rice Research Institute, the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture, and the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity. These three scientific institutions serve the world with their discoveries and thrive in a small-town atmosphere, sandwiched between Laguna Lake, the biggest lake in the Philippines, and the Makiling Forest Reserve.

The ecological interaction between the lake and the mountain make for an ideal, cool, semi-tropical wet climate locally. It showers here most days of the year, and I still go to bed with the sound of crickets from the nearby forest ringing in my ears. I wake up in the morning to the chirping of birds in the trees in our yard. The town enjoys relative security from petty crimes and traffic accidents, security that promotes a good night’s sleep.

To me that’s an important measure of happiness. I wish the same good fortune for my friends around the world.

Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science professor of Silliman University and UP Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) based in Manila.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.


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