That’s what I’d do, anyway. But if you did do that, when you peeped through the window to see if it was safe to go outside, you might see some other hapless citizen talking quite willingly to the guy with the clip-board. Some people must talk to them; after all, they interview a thousand folk in each of 155 countries across the world every year.
Did you guess who they are? No, not Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s the United Nations. To be exact they’re conducting a survey, as they do every year, to find out how happy we all are. They publish the results in the World Happiness Report. It all started because the UN decided that happiness might be a better measure of national success, or well-being, than wealth as measured by GDP, which is what everyone normally frets about.
The 2017 report has just been published and Norway won.
The point of the ladder thing is that there are ten rungs on the ladder, the top one of which represents the best possible life you can imagine, and the bottom the worst such life. The question is: where are you standing right now?
‘I’m in front of 7-Eleven.’
‘No, sir. Where on the ladder, metaphorically speaking.’
‘Oh, I get it. Let me think. The fifth rung.’
Most people say the fifth rung. If you look at the data there’s a peak at five for most countries. That means things are so-so; can’t complain. I don’t have a yacht with gold taps and I’m not married to Keira Knightley, but on the other hand I’m not in hospital with two broken legs having just been run over by three kids on a Suzuki Smash. That’s basically what standing on rung five means.
In Norway, more people seem to imagine they’re married to Keira Knightley than in any other country, and they can jump out of the way of snowmobiles, so they rank as the happiest folk in the world. By chance, Mrs Pobaan and I actually found ourselves in Norway a couple of months ago and, while outbursts of jollity in the street seemed relatively rare we did detect a general atmosphere of ‘we Norwegians are pretty good at arranging our lives; there’s not much we want that we don’t already have’.
Except of course the sun in winter, water that’s actually a liquid and alcoholic drinks that humans can afford to buy. In Norway you’re not even allowed to buy proper wine in a supermarket in case it drives you mad and you go walking outside without wearing a sleeping bag. Wine connoisseurs have to go to a government shop that’s hardly ever open and makes you feel like a criminal dipsomaniac for just looking through the window. Still, this doesn’t seem to stop Norwegians imagining themselves pretty high up the ladder—half way between the seventh and eighth rungs, actually.
In Thailand, we’re not quite that excitable. We get to see the sun all year round, and have cheap booze, but we don’t let these advantages go to our heads. When we get stopped in the street we say we’re on the sixth rung, headed for the seventh. That makes Thailand the 32nd happiest country in the world, one place behind the French, who have always been hard to please, and way ahead of all our immediate neighbours: the Malaysians are 42nd, Vietnamese 94th, Myanmarians 114th while the Cambodians, who I always thought were quite a cheerful bunch, are sulking at a miserable 129th. Have none of them been to Angkor Wat?
To the Pobaan mind, 32nd out of 155 is a very creditable score. Frankly, we wouldn’t want to be among the top ten countries where a high score for ‘happiness’ comes perilously close to ‘smugness’. And we wouldn’t want to be as morose as our geographical neighbours who remain so grumpy despite having the same climate, resources and so on as us. Just to rub it in, Thailand is actually getting happier. Over the last decade or so, the Land of Smiles has been the 19th fastest climber up the contentment scale. By the way, as if to validate the whole survey process, Greece has been one of the quickest fallers into despondency over the same period. So there you go.
What is it that makes Thais so happy about their lot? Luckily, the UN probes deeper into the national psyche than simply asking about ladders. On most of their measures of what explains the Happiness score, in 2016 we ranked somewhere above the middle—for ‘Healthy Life Expectancy’, ‘GDP Per Person’ and ‘Social Support’, we were placed between 31st and 67th.
It’s the next two measures that make the difference.
First ‘Trust’. The UN uses this measure to mean the perceived absence of corruption—the assumption being that corruption is a source of national unhappiness. So, how far do we trust those in authority in Thailand? Care to guess?
Yes, everyone gets a point. On the Trust measure, Thailand came 146th out of the 157 nations that took part that year. We are clearly hacked off with those in power having their noses in the trough and their fingers in the till and would be a lot happier if they behaved properly.
So, with three measures in the top half and one at rock-bottom, what is it that puts the smile in the Land of Smiles? This will make you glow with pride, yet I doubt if you can guess it.
The final UN measure is…da daah… ‘Generosity’.
When Thais think about their lives, what makes them happiest is the generosity of their fellow man. On the Generosity scale, Thailand comes second in the whole world, with only Myanmar society considered more giving. It’s generosity that makes Thailand such a happy place.
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