A Gallup poll report published in April 2011 found that the residents of my adoptive country Canada are among the world’s happiest.The same poll found that the residents of my home country Kenya are among the world’s saddest people.
Residents in countries rated high on Gallup’s ‘happiness’ scale are probably less startled with the findings than those from countries situated on the lower rungs of this ladder. A review of Kenyan news media showed a pre-occupation with this poll, and attempts to either challenge or explain the findings. A review of other media revealed the findings were new fodder for historical rivalries: “Pakistanis happier than Indians’ read one news story.
The results are as intriguing as they are startling. Apparently the pollsters asked people in different countries to rank their lives on a scale from 1 to 10 on several indicators such as physical health, emotional health and their work environment. My attempt to obtain the actual questionnaire was fruitless, so I comment here based on a summary from the Gallup website on the survey contents.
It seems to me the survey is based on a white, western, middle-class understanding of ‘happiness’. Integral to a valid transnational comparative study is a shared understanding of the variables under scrutiny, which seems not to be the case in this Gallup poll. The survey appears to transpose certain values across different cultural contexts, to subsequently draw conclusions on responses given outside a reciprocal shared understanding of the concepts. Take for instance the questions on Gallup’s ‘healthy behaviour index’ within the happiness survey. Whether one exercises 30 minutes or more, or has five or more servings of fruits and vegetables are western preoccupations that are also out of touch with a different reality. If my mother had time to spare she would not spend it exercising. Her daily diet is composed of vegetables, so she must do extremely well on this indicator, but this should not be equated to happiness. Or Gallup’s ‘physical health index. Did she feel well-rested yesterday? Has she been told by a doctor or nurse she has any in a list of medical conditions? Being ‘well-rested’ is not high up on my mother’s list of priorities: she is most satisfied when she is tired from hard work. She has a superstition about doctors as do many of her peers and had not seen the inside of a hospital for more than a decade. When she feels unwell she self-medicates (and successfully) for two common ailments – malaria and typhoid. So no, she has not been alerted to any medical condition and would answer in the negative to this question. Far from being eccentric, my mother’s attitudes reflect those of numerous others like her with more or less similar life experiences. To paraphrase an elderly participant to my (unrelated) research, questions that are valid in one context are not necessarily so in a different context. This seems to be self-evident but it is surprising how often this truth is ignored.
Further, what are the demographic characteristics of the respondents? To what extent are women’s responses different from men’s? One ethnicity’s from another? An intra-national rather than transnational comparison would be a more interesting and useful analysis. According to information on the Gallup website, the poll is not simply about happiness, it is about a nation’s ‘state of mind’ that is in turn instructive for the political leadership. Given that 2012 is an election year for Kenya, demographically disaggregated results would not come at a more opportune moment.