Saturday, May 26, 2007

Polls keep track of happiness in Land of Smiles


Thais were happiest during King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary celebrations, but the upturned lips have been going south since then.

IN THE week that a Thai newspaper published an article titled, “Land of the Vanishing Smile,” a smile appeared on Noppadon Kannika’s otherwise deadpan face when asked to rate his happiness level.

“Nine out of 10,” responds Noppadon, who is the director of Abac Poll Research Centre, which recently released a survey that became the basis of The Nation’s report on the continued post-coup slide in Thailand’s national happiness.

In an index measured on a 10-point scale with 10 indicating extreme happiness and one extreme unhappiness, Abac Poll found that the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) index of the country, which bills itself as the “Land of Smiles,” was at 5.11.

According to the poll that surveyed 4,363 people in 22 provinces between April 20 and May 12, Thais were depressed over the deadly violence in southern Thailand, where body bags containing soldiers and civilians were piling up.

The country’s uncertain political future was also worrying them. “We have so many mobs (groups) who are against the government,” says the pollster, the smile on his face vanishing.

Nonetheless, it is not all gloom and doom in Thailand. According to the survey, admiration for King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family gave Thais the most happiness – at a rating of 7.19.

The royal family was also the number one source for Noppadon’s cloud nine rating of his personal happiness. “I apply the self sufficiency economics advocated by the King in my daily life and that makes me happy,” he explains.

The 40-year-old pollster’s number two source of happiness was a tie between family (his lovely wife and son) and job satisfaction, as Thais are warming up to the monthly GDH survey he launched in January last year.

Noppadon’s interest in measuring happiness started in 2002. As a survey methodology graduate at the University of Michigan, United States, he learnt that Bhutan was espousing Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In 2004, when he returned to the Abac Poll Research Centre, he thought that designing a happiness survey for Thailand would be useful for his country.

But measuring happiness was not easy, he notes, “as it is something we cannot touch or see.” He conducted in-depth interviews and focus group discussions to find out what makes Thais happy. And he came up with a list of 15 factors such as environment, government, community life, family life, economy and the education system.

The pollster then designed a 20-page questionnaire with 100 questions – among these “Please rank your ability to walk for one kilometre,” “In the last three months, how high was your electricity bill?” and “How happy are you with General Surayud Chulanont’s performance as prime minister?” – which his researchers used to interview respondents.

When Abac Poll released its first GDH survey most Thai media organisations did not take it seriously. “Probably the media was not familiar with such a survey,” Noppadon reasons.

The GDH survey, however, gained prominence five months later when the then Bhutan crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck visited Bangkok in June last year during celebrations honouring King Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary as King of Thailand.

Jigme and Bhutan’s GNH index were the talk of the town. And the interest in GNH rubbed off on to Noppadon’s GDH.

“In that month (June) my GDH result became one of the biggest issues in Thailand,” Noppadon recalls, happily. Now, the Thai media widely report Abac Poll’s monthly survey.

Since its launch 17 months ago, the survey has found that Thais were happiest during the king’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Despite political turmoil connected to then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the GDH index soared to 9.21 points because of the people’s adoration for the king.

Unhappiness soaked Thais during the rainy season in October, the GDH index plunging to 4.86 points, its lowest reading yet. Severe flooding and the sharp rise in prices of consumer goods (as a result of flooding in agricultural land) made Thais unhappy.

At the end of the interview, Noppadon’s face brightened up when asked whether he would be happy in the next month. Yes. The pollster is flying to Bhutan to present a paper on his GDH survey.

(Published in The Star on May 26, 2007)