Published: 09:38, March 26, 2024 | Updated: 09:41, March 26, 2024
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Surveys suggest Western political system not so good
By Ho Lok-sang

At the heart of the “World Happiness Report”, whose latest edition was released last week, is a question based on the Cantril Ladder. It goes like this: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

To the credit of the authors, the shortcoming of this approach was noted. An experimental study involving 1,500 adults in the United Kingdom tried to understand how people actually interpret that question. The results show that it often brings to mind concepts of wealth and power. “The risk is that we are measuring a narrow, wealth and power-oriented form of well-being, rather than broader definitions of happiness,” says August Nilsson, the first author.

When the researchers tweaked the Cantril Ladder question, for example, by replacing “best possible life” with “most harmonious life”, this changed the results, making the respondents think less of power and wealth. It explains an enigma that an article in China Daily noted. In the Ipsos “Global Happiness 2023” study, the Ipsos team found that China ranked at the top among 32 countries and regions, with 91 percent of Chinese respondents saying they are generally happy, a 12 percent increase from a decade ago. But the “World Happiness Report” showed China ranked 64th. The rank moved up to 60th in the 2024 report.

This year the Ipsos study dropped China and several other countries, and added others. Unlike the “World Happiness Report”, the Ipsos study asked simply whether the respondent is “happy” or “rather happy”. There is no attempt to measure the degree of subjective well-being. The percentage of people reporting they are happy or rather happy becomes the headline number for ranking happiness.

The Ipsos report found that all the G7 countries, with the exception of the UK, showed declines, and only the UK made it to the top 10, where it stood in 10th place, with 75 percent of respondents saying they were happy or rather happy.

These results strongly suggest that the political system in the West that is so much touted and was almost thought to mark the end of history in terms of institutional evolution, in fact is not doing as well as was thought

The United States saw a decline from 76 percent to 72 percent; both France and Canada declined from 74 percent to 71 percent; Germany declined from 67 percent to 65 percent; Italy fell from 68 percent to 58 percent; and Japan fell from 60 percent to 57 percent. One other country that saw a major decline like Italy’s was South Korea, with the “happy” percentage declining from 58 percent to 48 percent.

It is also interesting to note that the UN “World Happiness Report” also shows that most G7 countries experienced declines, with the declines in increasing order of magnitude, at 0.138 (France), 0.187 (the UK), 0.255 (Italy), 0.545 (the US), and 0.599 (Canada). Germany showed an increase of 0.146, while Japan stayed put. The “World Happiness Report” reported that China’s happiness score rose at the sixth-fastest among all the countries, rising 1.293 points over the period from 2006-10 to 2021-23.

The UN report this year is to be commended for yet another reason, which is that for the first time, it has offered a ranking of life evaluation by age group for the 2021-23 period. The data shows that the old are very happy in China, with China’s elderly being among the top 30 countries in the world in subjective well-being. Among the young, China ranked only at 79th among 143 countries and regions, suggesting that while China’s elderly appear to be well-cared for under the social security system, China’s young population may face a lot of life pressures. China’s elderly also rated their well-being high because they have seen how hard life was when they were young. China’s young may not realize how difficult life was. Still, it is gratifying that China is among the top 10 countries in improvement of subjective well-being according to data on the Cantril Ladder question.

The Ipsos report has an interesting question that may throw light on why G7 countries mostly saw a decline in subjective well-being. In response to the question about satisfaction with “the social and political situation in my country”, the highest percentage of “satisfied” was recorded for Canada, the UK, and Germany, at 36 percent, 35 percent and 34 percent respectively. For France, the US, Italy, and Japan, the percentages are 30 percent, 29 percent, 29 percent, and 23 percent respectively. This shows that the majority of the people surveyed are unhappy with their political system.

Another interesting result from the Ipsos report is that the Netherlands is the only developed country with 80 percent or more respondents “happy or rather happy”. The others are all developing countries. The list includes China (91 percent in 2023), India (84 percent but falling to 82 percent in 2024), Mexico (81 percent, rising to 83 percent in 2024), Indonesia (79 percent, rising to 82 percent), and Brazil (83 percent, falling to 81 percent). This result may be because the Ipsos report did not include many Nordic countries, which are known to be among the happiest. Sweden was the only Nordic country that was included. But its percentage was an unexpected low of 74 percent in 2023, and it fell to 68 percent in the 2024 report. These results strongly suggest that the political system in the West that is so much touted and was almost thought to mark the end of history in terms of institutional evolution, in fact is not doing as well as was thought.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.