Taiwan's Pursuit of Happiness: Can We Trust the World Happiness Report?

Taiwan's Pursuit of Happiness: Can We Trust the World Happiness Report?
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Taiwan is ranked as the happiest country in East Asia, but the jury is out on what that actually means.

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Taiwan is the happiest country in East Asia, according to the 2019 World Happiness Report (WHR) produced by the United Nations. Among 156 countries, the survey panel ranked Taiwan 25th on the list, with Japan ranking 58th and China 93rd.

Finland topped the chart for the second year, while Denmark came in second. Hygge, a Danish word describing a lifestyle that celebrates coziness and comfort, became a buzzword in 2016 since Denmark had consistently been named the happiest country on earth. The Swedish lagom, which praises a moderate lifestyle, also became a trend as more people wanted to understand how Scandinavians were so happy.

But how reliable is the World Happiness Report? What purpose does it serve?

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Children enjoy themselves at the Taipei Water Park.

According to the report, a country’s average happiness is calculated using the following six variables provided by the Gallup World Poll: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.

“I believe Taiwan would score high in life expectancy, social support, and generosity,” says Po-wen Chen, a Taipei resident. “But I don’t feel any growth in GDP; it’s only reflected in housing prices. Even if there’s a 3 percent growth, the benefits would go to the capital owners, not the working class.”

The survey relies on subjective self-reporting that asks participants to evaluate their answers on a scale of 0 to 10. The result is derived from data collected from 2016 to 2018, with an annual sample size of 1,000 people.

“A sample size of 2,000 to 3,000 is large enough to give a fairly good estimate at the national level,” says the report in its FAQ section.

These few thousand people in each country then rate their happiness based on various factors. The measurement of social support, for example, asks “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?”

If the WHR counted economic security as one of the major metrics of happiness, then it must have missed the memo on Taiwan’s wage crisis. The subjective question of social support might also simply be a reflection of the Taiwanese culture of having large and multigenerational families and valuing filial piety and community over one’s independence. And in terms of corruption, Taiwan’s score in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was far behind its peers such as Singapore and Japan.

Within the same data set from the Gallup World Poll, the measurement of “positive affect” is defined by one’s emotional happiness. It asks the participants if they have felt happiness, smiled or laughed a lot yesterday. In this section of the poll, Paraguay is ranked first, followed by Somalia and Iceland. Taiwan is ranked 17th on the same list, even higher than its final ranking.

The small sample size in the poll, however, does not necessarily reflect mental health issues in the happiest regions. In Finland, the world’s happiest country according to the WHR, suicide is responsible for one-third of all deaths among teenagers and young adults. The Happiness Research Institute’s recent report also raised concerns about mental health struggles in the Nordic region. Similarly, suicide rates have been steadily rising in Taiwan in spite of its favorable happiness ranking.

The differing results then raise the question of whether happiness should be defined by the emotional state of an individual, or by a country’s overall well-being and prosperity.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
An elderly man sits on a panda ride inside a Keelung temple.

“People around me are generally quite content even though they do have small day-to-day complaints,” says Sylvia Liu, a Tainan homestay owner. “Taiwanese do seem happier than other East Asians, but less so when compared to Europeans. Our society values group identity, which makes self-actualization more difficult.”

Should anyone even attempt to rank happiness? To do so, one has to first define and standardize happiness, a human emotion. The problematic ranking on world happiness divides such an emotion into six factors. When the report triggers worldwide coverage each year, it is no longer a survey but a global reference – one that neglects reality and alienates individuals.

The ranking of happiness takes the public focus away from the WHR’s more in-depth discussions. Beyond a survey of global happiness, the WHR does a better job at examining issues of particular importance in the United States, such as voting behavior, digital media influence and, addiction. The 2019 report’s discussion on the relationship between big data and well-being is far more intriguing than whether Finland or Denmark is the happiest country: Does a lack of privacy improve a society’s operation? Will big data better predict our well-being?

The final question, though, remains an enigma: Should we still believe in hygge?

Read Next: How Rich Is Taiwan Anyway? Analyzing the Economy Under Tsai Ing-wen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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