On April 23, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) has put out the third World Happiness Report 2015. Pakistan has been placed at the 81st spot out of 158 countries surveyed, second only to Bhutan (79) among South Asian nations. India comes in at the 117th place while Afghanistan is the sixth least happy country, in league with Burkina Faso and Rawanda.

The variables used to measure happiness across various societies include real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity. Apart from these variables, the questions asked from the respondents, as part of surveys, related to both positive and negative emotions. The report suggests that wellbeing and happiness are critical indicators of a nation’s social and economic progress and the advancement of happiness should be the key aim of public policy.

A distinctive feature of the report is that, besides analyzing the geography of happiness it also presents subjective well-being data, gender and age wise. There are some interesting findings in this regard. The countries with significant gender gaps with respect to life satisfaction in favor of men are in the Middle East and North Africa and those with very small and negligible gender gaps are in Western Europe and Latin America. This shows that there is a direct correlation between gender equality and life satisfaction by women. It has also been observed that, on a global basis, both men and women show a decline in feelings of satisfaction by 10 percentage points from teen years until mid-life, after which the level of satisfaction generally stays constant.

An important point worth mentioning is that happiness determinants are not something inherent or an instinctive quality of human beings. Psychological studies have found that to engage in training to cultivate the ability to respond positively towards circumstances plays an important role in the promotion of wellbeing. The ability to recover quickly from adversity, pro-social behavior and mindfulness are described as neural correlates of happiness.

The most important section of the report concerns the question of formulation and prioritization of government policies, when the goal is to advance happiness. The authors of the report indicate that the correct approach is to rank all possible policies in terms of the extra happiness which they generate per dollar of expenditure, starting with the most effective and working down. And then as many policies should be undertaken, as it is possible to do before the total money available is exhausted. More weight should be given to policies that bring changes in the happiness level of people who are miserable than of people who are already quite happy. Given this, would it be wrong to say that the Punjab government, focused overwhelmingly on infrastructure projects, is consciously working to make poor people more miserable by ignoring education and health sectors?

To analyze the prospects of tax reform, the report provides, it should be evaluated how the proposed change will affect the happiness of each member of the population and then consider the aggregate of those changes. The realignment of the government’s approach towards public expenditure will entail a departure from traditional cost-effective calculations, inclusion of scientific element in the analysis of policies and incorporating happiness as a measure of benefit.

The 2015 report also identifies social capital as one of the building blocks of individual and societal wellbeing. Human beings are social animals. We are happier when we are with others and our most rewarding experiences are normally connected with human relationships. In all societies, the most important relationships are with blood relatives, yet our relationships at work, with friends and in the community are also important. A successful society is one in which people have a high level of trust in each other – including family members, colleagues, friends, strangers, and institutions such as government. Social trust spurs a sense of life satisfaction. The various dimensions of social capital tend to include interpersonal trust, social support systems, individual generosity, and honesty in governance.

Pakistan is stuck in the social trap of low social capital. In Pakistan, the level of trust and collaboration is high within traditional networks like close family circles. But beyond these networks, social capital remains very low. The government is never the main source of values in a healthy community. There is ample evidence from psychology and neuroscience that people who care more about others are on average happier. When people do good deeds for others, they also feel happy. It is difficult to see how harmonious societies could even exist unless this emotional pay-off is there. Governments in developing countries should take the findings of the report as a guide to chart the path towards sustainable development.