The first World Happiness Report was published in 2012. The most recent one was published a few weeks ago. In both reports, Sri Lanka was ranked very low, lower than most countries in the world. In 2012, the country’s position was 137 out of 156 countries, whereas, this year the country has been ranked 132 out of 158 countries. All Asian countries except Cambodia and Afghanistan have done better than Sri Lanka. The country that came first is Switzerland, followed by several Nordic countries like Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Finland. Other countries that fell into the first ten are Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. As is well known, all these countries are not only economically developed but have high levels of social development bolstered by long-standing welfare policies.
In recent years we have been accustomed to describing Sri Lanka as a lower middle income country with an unusually high level of social development. In fact, many commentators have pointed out that Sri Lanka’s high level of social development is exceptional for a country of such a low level of per capita GDP. On the other hand, the country is neither extremely poor nor socially backward. Countries that are ranked very low are usually economically poor and socially underdeveloped. Some of these are also conflict-ridden like Afghanistan. It is against this background that the very low ranking of Sri Lanka in the world happiness report comes as a surprise to many in this country and elsewhere. Yet, a closer examination of economic, social and political conditions in this country shows that it is not difficult to understand why it has ranked so low in the global happiness report of 2015.
"Employment is another area of distress for many people. A majority of employed people in the country depend on precarious work, often exposing them to all kinds of risks"
Happiness is obviously a subjective measure. In other words, how contended the people are with their personal situation. Obviously, material circumstances are important. That is why almost all the poor countries are ranked much lower than wealthier countries. People deprived of their basic necessities cannot be happy and contended. On the other hand, wealth is not the main source of happiness and contentment. It is the satisfaction of material needs combined with positive social and political conditions that elevates a population to a higher level of happiness. What are these social and political circumstances? These can be discussed under several headings, namely, stable social networks, dependable social support, basic freedoms, absence of corruption, equal opportunities, control over life circumstances and hopefulness.
As is well known, Sri Lanka’s social and political conditions deteriorated over the last several decades, making many people vulnerable. The political conflicts and mass migration of people, both internal and external, disrupted the life of many people in the country. Many women and elderly people are adversely affected by mass migration of younger people. Even temporary migration of workers leaves vulnerable members of their families without dependable social support, often making them helpless.
Employment is another area of distress for many people. A majority of employed people in the country depend on precarious work, often exposing them to all kinds of risks. It is estimated that about 60 per cent of the gainfully employed people rely on informal employment without social protection and other social benefits that usually come with regular and stable jobs.
Another important source of frustration for many Sri Lankans today is the gross social inequality that surrounds them. This is particularly pronounced with respect to access to such services as health, education, transport and old-age pensions. All these exert considerable social and economic pressure, creating a sense of deprivation in the minds of a large majority of people.
As is well known, corruption is endemic in many sectors and is a major source of frustration for many people. Widespread corruption makes people disillusioned about various institutions that, in fact should make life easier and more predictable. Education, health, law enforcement, judiciary, public administration and local government institutions that people have to deal with are often corrupt. Ordinary citizens are usually helpless when they are confronted by powerful people who are determined to extract a rent for a service or a favour they deliver. Personal interviews with a cross section of inmates in our prisons would reveal how disillusioned they are with the criminal justice system and many other institutions in the country. Free education has become a mockery as private tuition has long been an indispensable part of the education system in all parts of the country. All forms of discrimination faced by vulnerable sections of the population such as minorities and rural poor deny equal opportunities to them in various fields such as education, employment and other public resources. There are often no institutional safeguards to prevent such discrimination. Many people become violent in response to injustice, often resulting in tragic incidents like murder. It is not an accident that most people who are convicted and imprisoned are from the lower stratum of society.
The detailed notes given above on a number of facets of the life of the average Sri Lankan are meant to illustrate the point that Sri Lanka’s dismal position in the latest World Happiness Report should not surprise anyone familiar with the ground realities in the country. In other words, all is not well with the vast majority of the people and the government should take serious note of the situation with a view to finding ways and means of improving the living conditions of the under-privileged segments of society. When people do not have opportunities to influence the decision-making process even at the local level, they naturally feel voiceless and powerless. This naturally makes them unhappy. In this regard, the country that came first in the above list, namely, Switzerland, is exceptional. There the people have power to influence local level decision-making with respect to many issues that affect their day to day lives. As is well known, ordinary citizens in this country are alienated even from local institutions and they have little control over the decisions that these institutions make. As is well known, even the local councils do not consult people when they take decisions on matters that affect the well-being of local communities, despite a strong recommendation on this matter in the report of the 1998 Presidential Commission on Local Government Reforms.