RANGOON — Political and economic reforms have not necessarily translated to greater happiness for the people of Burma, according to the World Happiness Report 2013, a ranking of national happiness levels published this week by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Burma was ranked 121st on an index of 156 countries, with a significant drop in happiness levels over the past several years. Of all countries in the survey, Burma saw the third-biggest decline in happiness levels between 2005-07 and 2010-12, despite transitioning from a military dictatorship to a nominally civilian government in 2011. Larger drops in happiness were only recorded in Greece and Egypt, in the wake of recent political turmoil and economic crises.
The world’s top five happiest countries were Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden, while the lowest ranked countries were Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Benin and Togo.
The report ranked countries based on international data on how people rate their emotions and their lives as a whole. It averaged data from the Gallup World Poll from 2010, 2011 and 2012, for a typical sample size of 3,000 people per country.
When respondents were asked to evaluate their lives on a scale of 1 to 10—with 10 being the happiest—the average score for the top five countries was 7.48, while the average score for the bottom five countries was 2.94. Burma averaged 4.4, compared to about 5.3 in 2005-07.
Surveys were also given to respondents with questions about the state of their emotions the day before.
Differences in happiness levels by country were explained mainly by GDP per capita, years of healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, perceptions of corruption, prevalence of generosity, and freedom to make life choices. Mental illness was reported as the single most important source of unhappiness, as well as an issue largely ignored by policy makers.
“Despite the obvious detrimental happiness impacts of the 2007-08 financial crisis, the world has become a slightly happier and more generous place over the past five years,” the report said.
“Overall, more countries have had significant increases  than decreases  in average life evaluations between 2005-07 and 2010-12.”
The report was a project by researchers from the London School of Economics, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the University of British Columbia and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, who published their first World Happiness Report last year.
Burma was ruled by military dictatorship and closed off to the international community for nearly five decades. After elections in 2010, the military rulers handed power to a nominally civilian government.
Since President Thein Sein took office in 2011, the government has carried out a platform of political and economic reforms—including easing media censorship, freeing several hundred political prisoners, and allowing the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest seats in Parliament. The changes have in turn encouraged the international community to drop economic sanctions that isolated the country for years.