The pursuit of happiness

Finland maintained its position as the world’s happiest nation early last year, maintaining its top ranking in the World Happiness Report (WHR) 2019 for the second year running.

Unfortunately, Malaysians did not share the same positive sentiment, which was reflected by a significant drop in the country’s ranking to the 80th spot last year. In the 2018 edition of the report, Malaysia was ranked 35th and was the second happiest nation in Southeast Asia; 2019 saw the country lagging behind Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

The World Happiness Report 2019 surveyed respondents from 156 countries for a two-year period from 2016 to 2018; the previous edition covered 2015 to 2017. Nations are ranked based on how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.

To uncover the reasons behind the decline in Malaysians’ happiness, Monash University Malaysia’s Head of Economics Department, Associate Professor Dr Grace Lee Hooi Yean turned to the World Values Survey (WVS) for answers.

The World Values Survey (WVS), which began in 1981, is the largest non-commercial, international time series investigation of human beliefs and values. A time series refers to a sequence of numerical data points in successive order.

Utilising a standard questionnaire, the WVS is derived from nationally representative surveys conducted in close to 100 countries, representing almost 90% of the world’s population and covering the full range of global variations.

The survey is coordinated by the World Values Survey Association (WVSA), a non-commercial non-governmental international social survey organisation, whose mission is to contribute to a better understanding of global changes in values, norms and beliefs of people through comparative representative national surveys worldwide.

For the Malaysian survey, 1,300 respondents from a mix of rural and urban areas across all states were interviewed over three months. Dr Lee, who is the principal investigator for the Malaysian surveys in 2012 and 2018, then conducted a regression analysis using the survey data to prove a relationship between the variables.

Two key determinants of happiness stood out in the survey – government’s trustworthiness and the financial position of Malaysians.

A scandal-ridden government

Between 2012 and 2018, Malaysians’ confidence in the government eroded from 75% to 50% while distrust grew from 25% to 50%.

“The 2018 survey was concluded in April, a month before the 14th General Election (GE14). In the previous survey concluded in 2012, we had not had the 1MDB scandal or the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The corruption scandal [which came to light] in 2015 could have reduced the people’s trust in the government,” said Dr Lee.

The US Department of Justice alleges US$4.5 billion (RM2.6 billion) was siphoned from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) between 2009 and 2014, with former Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak accused of diverting US$700 million from 1MDB’s former subsidiary SRC International into his bank accounts.

Najib’s alleged involvement in the corruption scandal contributed to the surprise win by the opposition Pakatan Harapan government, ending ruling coalition Barisan Nasional’s 60 years in power.

Dr Lee said the government needs to continue in its efforts to build trust among the people and to tackle corruption if it is to affect the happiness of Malaysians positively.

The plague of financial insecurity

With more Malaysian respondents indicating that their financial positions deteriorated in 2018 compared to 2012, it is no surprise that Malaysians are generally unhappier.

During the same period, fewer Malaysians were able to save money and get by financially, as reflected by 89% of respondents in 2012 and 75% six years later. More than twice the number of respondents (25%) spent their savings and borrowed money in 2018 compared to the 12% who indicated so in 2012.

According to Dr Lee, the WVS findings were consistent with those of a financial behaviour report by the Debt Management and Counselling Agency (AKPK). The AKPK study, which surveyed 3,500 Malaysian working adults from January 2018 to July 2018, found that 1 in 5 working adults failed to save money during the survey period, while 3 out of 10 professionals resorted to borrowing due to their financial situation.

“The main reason was the high cost of living in Malaysia. Furthermore, GST was implemented in April 2015. The financial well-being of respondents does affect their level of happiness,” she said, adding that the findings were a good wake-up call to Malaysians to keep financially healthy.

While the rising cost of living may seem beyond individuals’ control, Malaysians could work towards saving more money and improving their spending habits to improve their financial position where possible, said Dr Lee. The government too needs to play their part in promoting financial literacy and encouraging Malaysians to save more.

What makes Malaysians happy

Findings from the World Values Survey 2018 showed the majority of Malaysians to be happy (85%).

Interestingly, while financial security does influence Malaysians’ happiness, the wealthiest states in the country were not necessarily the happiest. Respondents in Putrajaya, Pahang, Johor, Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and Sarawak, were happier than the average mean of happiness, compared with those who lived in KL, Selangor and Penang.

When ranked by income level, Malaysians in the middle-income bracket reported the highest level of happiness.

Being highly educated does not guarantee one happiness, according to the WVS. More respondents with tertiary education were unhappy (17%), compared to primary (12%) and secondary (12%) school leavers. Married respondents were marginally happier (89%) than singletons (84%), Dr Lee said.

Volunteering to help others is one of the things that made Malaysians happier. Respondents who were active members of a voluntary organisation reported higher levels of happiness and greater life satisfaction.

Happiness also hits the highest point in young adulthood between the ages of 18 to 20, followed by 56 to 65 and above 70 years old. “Malaysians in their early 20s become gradually less happy, reaching a low point in their mid-thirties and mid-forties respectively. Levels of contentment take off again after that before dipping to the lowest point in their life between the ages of 66 to 70. They get happier beyond the age of 70. Happiness increases as we head towards old age,” she said.

Moving forward, Dr Lee is currently collaborating with her former PhD student on a World Bank report exploring elderly life satisfaction to investigate what caused the dip in happiness between the ages of 66 to 70.

“It’s a mixed-method study with quantitative and qualitative elements for a more conclusive and comprehensive study. The WVS findings call for more qualitative-type studies to further examine why Malaysians’ trust in the government and their financial situation affects happiness, as well as why happiness differs across the age cohorts,” she said.