by Tran Quynh Hoa
Many Vietnamese people were pleased if not delighted to learn that their country ranked second in the world in the 2012 Happy Planet Index that was released last week.
Compiled by UK independent think tank the New Economics Foundation, Viet Nam ranks only behind Costa Rica, and far ahead of the developed and prosperous countries such as Norway (29th), the UK (41st), Japan (45th) and the US (105th) in terms of happiness.
It is a nice thought, but is it really true that those living in well-off countries are less happy than us?
Being runners-up in the happiness ranking may satisfy some but others remain unconvinced, considering Viet Nam's chronic pollution, chaotic traffic, overcrowded hospitals and overpriced real estate.
A survey announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year put Viet Nam in the top 10 worst countries for air pollution.
On the roads, some 30 people are killed in traffic accidents in Viet Nam every day.
When it comes to health care, it is far from rare to see two or three adult patients sharing a single hospital bed in the country's major hospitals. Meanwhile, a survey by the World Health Organisation in 2010 of seven popular medicines showed that prices in Viet Nam were 5-40 times higher than the world average.
According to Dang Hung Vo, former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment, the current average house price in Viet Nam is 25 times higher than the annual income of workers, five times higher than that in the developed world and 10 times that in other developing countries.
Even the 2011 Viet Nam Human Development Report, on which part of the Happy Planet Index was based, was not that positive about the country's situation. The report, produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), showed Viet Nam's index to be below that of countries in the medium human development group and even lower than the average in countries in East Asia and the Pacific.
"Progress in social development, including health and education, has been less rapid," said Setsuko Yamazaki, UNDP's country director. "As in many other middle-income countries, inequality is starting to rise in Viet Nam."
She said the inequality in health, education and income, the deteriorating environment, extreme weather conditions and the challenges of climate change all threatened the gains made by the country in terms of development.
"So where is that happiness when we are deprived of all the basic needs in life?" said Nguyen Thanh Hien, 31, who has travelled widely. She can't stop reiterating how lucky people are to live in Europe, North America, Australia or Japan.
But it is not too hard to see why Viet Nam came second in the Happy Planet Index when you look at its key components. The index ranked countries based on life expectancy, well-being and environmental sustainability (Happy Planet Index = (Experienced well-being x Life expectancy)/Ecological footprint).
"Life expectancy", which uses data from the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report, is probably the only uncontroversial component. Viet Nam's life expectancy is 75.2.
Meanwhile, "Ecological footprint" – the denominator in the fraction – uses World Wildlife Fund data as a measure of resource consumption. This, according to the New Economic Foundation, explains why many high-income countries scored low on the happiness index – their extensive use of natural resources.
The "Experienced well-being" component is assessed using a question called the "ladder of life" from the Gallup World Poll. This asked 1,000 respondents in each country to imagine a ladder where 0 represented the worst possible life and 10 the best, and to state which step on the ladder they felt they currently stood on. Viet Nam scored 5.8 (out of 10) on this.
For world traveller Hien, the score Viet Nam received for "Experienced well-being" was way too high but perhaps reflected respondents' naivete; many may well never have experienced life in the developed world, and were simply happy with their lot in life.
Hanoian Nguyen Thi Vinh, 80, who has lived through both the French and American wars and never travelled abroad, believes she is living a dream.
"You could not imagine how miserable life was decades ago. I could not enjoy a single peaceful night or even a meal without rushing off to a bomb shelter," she said. "We now have nice food to eat, good clothes to put on and don't have to see our family members or friends killed. What else could we ask for?"
The problems of measuring happiness were set out by Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in his book The Idea of Justice.
"Even for the same person, the use of the happiness scale can be quite misleading if it leads to ignoring the significance of other deprivations that may not be at all well judged in the scale of happiness," he wrote. "The relation between social circumstances and perceptions also yields other problems for the mental metric of utilities, since our perceptions may tend to blind us to the deprivations that we do actually have, which a clearer and more informed understanding can bring out."
To explain the idea, Sen took the issue of health as an example. "One of the complications in evaluating states of health arises from the fact that the person's own understanding of their health may be limited by lack of medical knowledge and by inadequate familiarity with comparative information."
So, are the Vietnamese really that happy – and do we really need to ask? — VNS