Happiness index: A suggestion for national governance

Prof. Dr. HO SI QUY
Institute of Social Science Information, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences
Thursday, November 17, 2022 07:59

Communist Review - In the Documents of the 13th Party Congress, happiness is determined as a goal to strive for by the entire society, the aspiration of development of the country, the supreme standard of the Vietnamese families. These are the important guidances for national governance, taking happiness to become a practical reality in the national development.

General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong with the people at Vat Lai Commune, Ba Vi District, Hanoi City _Photo: VNA

Happiness is the correct yardstick of social progress and the goal of public policy

Happiness is a cognitive object hard to catch. Therefore, as always, happiness is often the field of the theological and phylosophical instructions, or in other words, they are the judgements heavily inclined on counseling and experience. However, with its nature as being the real product of human life, happiness is a value which is both objective and subjective. Therefore, the process of pursuing happiness, no matter how much subjective colour it can carry, it remains the search which is not merely “idealist” and it can be said that it is filled with tiredness.

It is the reason that urges the psychologists, the experts of social sciences and even the mathematicians who have worked hard to study the quantity of happiness. So, honestly, happiness cannot be so easy to become an object for the rational dissection and quantification of science. The analytical methods and precision measurement of science seem being helpless before the complicated variability of this category: The poor people dream about the happiness of wealthiness, but the rich people still feel unhappy, whereas it is not rare to see that the poor people have so far had their true happiness. Similarly, kings or common people, the noble man or the vile person, the wise man or the stupid man, the successful man and the loser…., it is really difficult to measure precisely who is happier than who.

The problem lies in the fact that human happiness, no matter how complicated it is, cannot separate the chemical and ecological mechanisms of the psychological enthusiastic states of human beings in action. And so, happiness is not the abstract quantity which has been conceived so far, but it is possible to measure it by the yardstick of psychology or sociology, or economics, methamatics, ecology, chemistry and so on. For instance, it is possible to measure the quantity of human beings in a society to see how satisfied they are with their lives, with the policy of the government that governs them(1).

For about ten years now, the studies of the quantity of happiness have suddenly become trendy. The most significant reason to explain this phenomenon is that wealthiness and civilization are still not certain to make human life more pleasant; Terrorism and global epidemics in recent time have become the dangerous threat to any country; with the policy which is reasonable and popular, the social security can be ensured. Happiness turns out to be the supreme goal of human life, “the correct yardstick of the social progress and the goal of the public policy” (2). Among the studies of quantity which have been paid attention to, Happy Planet Index – HPI under the New Economics Foundation (Britain) is the first publication released in 2006. After that, the Report of the Market Research and Polling Association Win/Gallup International under the World Bank (WB) and since 2012, it is the World Happiness Report – WHR of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network – SDSN of the United Nations.

HPI has so far only published its printed text in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2016. Since 2016, HPI has updated frequently and published it in the on-line form. According to this ranking chart, in 2006, Vietnam was ranked 12th out of 178 countries (3). In 2012, HPI of Vietnam was even higher, ranking the second, only after Costa Rica. In 2016, Vietnam was ranks the fifth, after Costa  Rica, Mexico, Colombia and Vanuatu (4). However, not only the Vietnamese, but also a lot of foreign scholars also showed their doubts about the set of scientific instruments of the HPI Report. Assessing happiness in accordance with the criteria of quantity will never avoid being constrained.

Apart from HPI, the Win/Gallup International of the WB also publishes its annual research results or its analysis of many indices, including the happiness index. Besides the HPI, at present, the WHR has been judged as being more prestigious than when it published its annual publication used by the UN countries, the politicians and scientists as the input data for their researches. The WHR published its first publication in April 2012 as proposed by the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon at that time, with the purpose of supporting the UN High Level Meeting of Wellbeing and Happiness. Through this meeting, the UN recommended that the countries had better consider happiness as the correct measurement of social progress and the goal of the public policy. Since then, the WHR has continued to study and publish on the International Day of Happiness annually on March 20. Up to now, 9 the WHR reports have been published. Each report has got a limit of three years so as to measure happiness of the countries (say, the Report in 2021 studied and assessed happiness of the countries in the years from 2018 to 2021).

Criteria of happiness: The suggestion for national governance

The fundamental quantity to judge happiness used by the WHR is the degree of satisfaction with life and it is measured by mark 10 scale, ranging from “extreme dissatisfaction” to “extreme satisfaction”. Accordingly, the WHR measures the level of happiness in the countries by basing on 8 criteria (5): 1- Per capita GDP calculated in accordance with the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and with USD rate in 2011 published by the WB according to the World Development Index (WDI); 2- The number of years of healthy living as compared to the average longevity. This figure is built by basing on the date of the World Health Organization (WHO); 3- Social support is measured by the possibilities of receiving the support at the difficult point of time. Social support of the countries is calculated at the average level of binary responses (0 or 1) for the question of the Gallup World Poll (GWP): “If you are in trouble, can your relatives or friends be able to help you or not?”; 4- Free selection. This criterion is measured by the national average ratio concerning the binary responses for the GWP’s question: “Are you satisfied or not with your freedom when you have selected what you have done in life?”; 5- The tolerance. This criterion is measured by the contributions to society when answering the GWP’s question: “Have you contributed your charity money in the last month?”; 6- The perception of corruption. This criterion is measured by the average of the binary responses to two questions of GWP: “Can corruption be popular to all public authlority agencies or not?” and “Can corruption be popular to all enterprises or not?”; 7- Positive response. This criterion is measured by the national average ratio concerning the mood of happiness, the laughter and the joy for the specific experiments of GWP; 8- Negative response. This criterion is measured by the national average ratio concerning the mood of worries, sadness and anger for the specific experiments of GWP. All of these 8 criteria are all the independent variables calculated to measure the subjective attitude of the people in over 150 countries. In each country, the number of specific experiments chosen for the research samples is 1,000 persons. The WHI is the relatively complicated integrated result of all these criteria.

In fact, the WHR experts has recommended for the activities of national governance that “the policy makers need to know the cause of happiness and misery” (6). Some elements that make influence on the people, such as income and jobs, education and family life. But there are also other elements having different importance for individuals, such as individual spiritual and physical health. These elements create the great differences in feeling happiness and misery of individuals. As for the elements that have impacts on misery, according to the WHR, in principle, it is possible to eliminate it, such as hunger and poverty, low education, unemployment, celibacy, diseases and so on.

According to the WHR, in 2017, in the Western societies, the spiritual health and cooperative relationship, friends were often more important than income, jobs, even diseases. In general, in any country, physical health is never more important than the spiritual health and it is noteworthy that the income of households only explains under 2% of the difference in happiness (7).

Especially children, the WHR in 2017 showed that the most important thing for children to have happiness is their spiritual health and behaviours, then their academic records. The elements that have direct impacts on children’s spiritual health and behaviours are their parents’ income and their mother’s spiritual health. The next element is the social environment of the elementary and middle schools. These elements also influence their academic resords.

These statements are of specially important significance for policy making as far as the feeling of happiness and human development are concerned. Special attention to the middle education must be the most important thing of the education and the care for the mother’s spiritual health is also not allowed to be treated lightly in each family.

In the WHR in 2021, when discussing the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, the experts had laid stress on the element of confidence – “the confidence of the masses is like the support to the successful responses to the pandemic”. This discovery is in conformity with the UN’s previous researches: those people who place their strong confidence on society and institution are often happier than those people who live in the environment of less confidence. Those communities with high confidence are often more resilient when they face with crisis. Confidence and standards of social cooperation not only create favourable conditions to the timely response, but also help human beings feel happier.

Real state of happiness of Vietnam and the world in accordance with WHR in 2012 - 2021

From the WHR was published in 2012 to the latest report in 2021, all the 10 happiest countries were all the developed industrial countries, mainly in the Auropean region, and Canada, Australia and New Zealand were outside the region. The countries had the highest happiness indext were the Nordic countries. Denmark was on the top of the list in 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017. After that, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Finland and the Netherlands. In four consecutive years in recent time, from 2018 to 2021, Finland was the “happiest country in the world” with the WHI being 7,623 in 2018, 7,769 in 2019, 7,809 in 2020 and 7,842 in 2021. In 2022, this country continued to lead the list of countries which were the happiest countries in the world.

It can be understood why the Nordic countries always ranks top in terms of humanity’s happiness index. Living conditions, the social and cultural levels, social welfare level, the attitude of the macro governing apparatus are all the elements that have created the happy life of these countries.

In the Association of South East Asian Countries (ASEAN), Singapore always ranks top and also ranks top in Asia all through these years, synonymous with the fact that this is the happiest country in Asia. The WHI of this country was 6,377 and was the 31st country out of 152 countries in 2020, the 32nd out of 149 countries in 2021; this shows that the people of Singapore are relatively satisfied with the life quality, with its health care, the educational level, the environmental conditions and their managerial apparatus.

In 2012, Vietnam was ranked the 65th out of 157 countries with its happiness indext being 5,553. From 2012 to 2017, Vietnam’s ranking in correlation with other countries was changeable, because the rankings of the countries also changed continuously and Vietnam’s economic and social problems had also directly decided Vietnam’s ranking. From 2017, Vietnam’s WHI was better improved. In the 2019-2021 stage, Vietnam saw 15 ranks higher in the list with its WHI increasing from 5,175 to 5,411 (8). In 2022, Vietnam’s WHI continued to be raised 2 ranks higher (9). This reflects the relatively high and stable growth rate in the economic life and the positive feel of happiness of the people of all strata, even though the absolute figure had not increased as required. The psychology of satisfaction with life of the majority of people has been gradually improved in terms of living standards in a country which is developing excitedly and this is a considerable element to improve the happiness index of Vietnam.

It is also necessary to draw attention that if in other fields, the feel must be conquered by the precise figures of science, then in the area of judging happiness, it is necessary to respect the value of the feel. It can be recognized that at present now a few people are still doubtful about the figures that reflect the happiness of the Vietnamese people. Certain difficult problems are happening in the economic and social life, the negativities in the daily life, the concrete misfortunes being experienced by a number of people …. have made no small influences on the common concept about the happiness of the Vietnamese.

This is the issue that the Documents of the 13th Congrress of the Communist Party of Vietnam have also directly mentioned when the leading viewpoints are raised in order to arouse  the patriotic spirit, the will of self-reliance, the strength of the great national unity and the aspirations for developing the prosperous and happy country.

From the lesson of experience drawn from the renovation cause, happiness is mentioned in the Political Report of the Party’s 13th Congress as the goal of the striving, consolidation and strengthening of the people’s confidence. The Documents of the Party’s 13th Congress affirms: “Closely tightening the relationship with the people, based on the people to build the Party; taking the happiness and prosperity of the people as the goal to strive for, to consolidate and strengthen the people’s confidence in the Party, the State and the socialist society” (10).

Among the strategic breakthrough of national development, happiness is presented as the aspiration for the national development, so it needs being aroused as the great spiritual dynamism of the entire nation. In the fourth orientation  of the national development in the 2021-2030 stage. The Documents of the 13th Party Congress stress: “Developing the all-sided humans and building the Vietnamese culture richly imbued with national identity so that culture and the Vietnamese people really become the endogenous strength, the dynamism for national development and for the defence of the Fatherland. To increase investment in the development of the cultural cause. To build, develop, create the environment and the best favourable social conditions so as to arouse the patriotic tradition, the national pride, the confidence and aspiration for development of the prosperous and happy country; the talent, intellect and qualities of the Vietnamese are the centre, goal and dynamism for the most important development of the country” (11).

The Political Report of the 13th Party Congress mentions happiness as a criterion to build the Vietnamese family: “To concentrate on studying, determining and deploying the building of the national value system, the cultural value system and the human standards in combination with the maintenance and development of the value system of the Vietnamese families in the new stage… To implement the cultural standards of the Vietnamese families of prosperity, happiness, progress and civilization. To uphold the role of families in nurturing and educating the young generation” (12).

Of the 6 key tasks of the 13th Party tenure, the fourth task is determined by the Communist Party of Vietnam: “To arouse the aspiration for developing the prosperous and happy country; to maintain and promote the cultural value, the Vietnamese human strength in building and defending the Fatherland, in the international integration; to have the specific policies to develop culture in the areas of the ethnic minority people; to well carry out the social policy, to ensure the social security, human security, thus creating the strong change in governing the social development, to implement the social progress and equality, to improve the life qualities and the happiness index of the Vietnamese people” (13). It is noteworthy that the raising of the happiness index of the Vietnamese which is determined in the Documents is an important content of a central task of the Party of this tenure.

In the sphere of being an espect of the national development, happiness dealt with in the Document of the 13th Party Congress: “Our country will certainly record a miraculous achievement of new development for a prosperous and happy Vietnam so as to advance together and to be a par with the powers in the five continents and implement successfully Great President Ho Chi Minh’s wishes and aspirations of the entire nation” (14).

With the annually published world’s happiness index report, the United Nations has continuously recommended that any country that wants to make their people really happy, they should have their own policies and strategies for the people’s satisfaction with their lives, and there are at least 8 specific criteria as the UN has measured the degree of happiness of the people in over 150 countries in the past 10 years (2012 - 2021). The profound meaning that the UN wants to warn the governments is that all the economic and social strides are not completely making people happy. For the people, that the average longivity increases can only bring about happiness when the number of healthily living years also increases together. Beeing rich or poor cannot avoid the misfortunes if they are not assisted when they are landed in difficulties and despairs. In the selections in life, even they are successful, it is not necessarily for them to bring happiness to human beings, if these selections do not have freedom and willingness. The strong government, the successful enterprises or the professional public authority agencies are also not sure to bring about happiness to the people if the people still feel that corruption remains the obsession in each civil activity, if the people’s confidence in the regime is yet to be reliable. And finally, it is the mood of satisfaction, the laughter and the joy in life that the WHR does not forget quantifying to make recommendations to the governments./.


(1) Craif Lambert: “The Science of Happiness”, Havard Magazine, January and February 2007, p. 26 - 27

(2) The World Happiness Report 2015: “Happiness is a proper measure of social progress and a goal of public policy”. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/docUNDOC/GEN/N11/420/70N1142070.pdf?OponElement

(3)Happy Planet Index, http://happyplanetindex.org/

(4) See: Ho Si Quy: “World Happiness Index (WHI) 2012-2017 and the feeling of the Vietnamese about happiness”. The Human Studies Magazine, No. 3, 2017

(5) See: Clrk, Andrew E,, Flech, Sarah, Layard, Richard, Powdthavee, Nattavudth and Ward, George: “The Key Determinants of Happiness and Misery”, CEP Discussion Papers, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK

(6) See: WHR 2017, https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2017/

(7) WHR 2017: Household income per head explains under 2% of the variance of happiness in any country”, p. 134

(8) In 2012, 2020, 2021, the number of the countries that are measured happiness is not absolurely similar

(9) Nguyen Đuc: “WHR 2022: Vietnam increases in two ranks”. https://baochinhphu.vn/bao-cao-hanh-phuc-the-gioi-2022-viet-nam-tang-2-bac-10222030092851823.htm

(10) The Documents of the 13th Party Congress, the National Political Publishing House Su That, Hanoi, 2021, tomb I, p. 97

(11), (12), (13), (14): The Documents of the 13th Party Congress, Ibid, tomb I, p. 115 - 116, 143 - 144, 202, 205

This article was published in the Communist Review No. 989 (May 2022)