SINGAPORE – Emerging Asian nations are finding out what developed ones did years ago: money — and the stuff it buys — brings happiness.
Levels of self-reported well-being in fast-growing nations like Indonesia, China and Malaysia now rival those in the U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom, rich nations that have long topped the happiness charts, according to a Pew Research Center global survey released Friday. It says it shows how rises in national income are closely linked to personal satisfaction.
The pollsters asked people in 43 countries to place themselves on a "ladder of life," with the top rung representing the best possible life and the bottom the worst. Pew carried out the same survey in 2002 and 2005 in most of those countries, enabling researchers to look at trends over time.
But the data also suggested that there is a limit to how much happiness money can buy. For example, 56 percent of Malaysians rated their life a "seven" or higher on the ladder, significantly more than the 36 percent in Bangladesh, a poor country. Yet the public in Germany, which has far higher gross domestic product per capita than Malaysia, expressed a life satisfaction level of 60 percent, just 4 percentage points more than Malaysia.
While wealth is clearly important to happiness, other research has indicated it is far from the only factor. Women tend to be happier than man, for example, and unmarried and middle-aged people tend to report lower levels of well-being than married and younger people, respectively.
Just as Asians were likely to have reported rises in personal satisfaction over the last five years, they were also especially confident about the future. Broad majorities of Bangladeshis, Thais, Indonesians, Chinese, Filipinos and Indians are expecting their life in five years to be higher on the ladder than it is today.
The survey showed the people in Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia were among the least satisfied among emerging nations, and also the least optimistic about the future. The researchers suggested the political and social turmoil in the region might be a factor. Spain, which has seen its economy contract, showed a decrease in reported levels of well-being since 2007.
On the key findings, in eight of the 14 emerging countries surveyed in both 2007 and 2014, the percentage who say they stand at seven or higher on the "ladder of life" increased by double-digits. Some of the biggest gains occurred in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Malaysia and Russia.
The survey also asked respondents whether their household had each of the following nine items: a television, refrigerator, washing machine, microwave oven, computer, car, bicycle, motorcycle and radio. In findings that were replicated across 37 of the countries, the more items a person had on the list, the happier they tended to be.
The research was based on 47,643 interviews in 43 countries with adults 18 and older. It was conducted between March and June this year. The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan research center that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It is funded by a charitable trust.