Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Indonesians are happy, even in a room without a roof

Indonesians are happy, even in a room without a roof

Indonesians know what Pharrell Williams is talking about on his hit track, Happy (see local version of the video above). According to survey results released by the country's Central Statistics Agency (BPS) last week, Indonesia scored 65.11 out of 100 on the agency's Happiness Index, placing it firmly in the category of 'happy' (50-75%) while falling short of 'very happy' (75-100%), but surpassing 'not so happy' (25-50%) and 'unhappy' (0-25%).

The national survey, conducted last year, aimed to measure general satisfaction with living conditions, security, environment, income, health, education and family harmony. It found that Indonesians were most positive about family relations and least positive about education and income levels, the Jakarta Post reported. The survey was the first of its kind to be conducted by the Indonesian Government.

Internationally, Indonesia also scored well on happiness in 2013 in a report compiled by market research company Ipsos. The country topped the table on happiness at 55%, leaving Australia behind at number 12 with a score of only 19%. Ipsos found that respondents were more likely to say they were happy if they also considered their national economy to be 'good'. Indonesia's economy grew by 5.6% last year but the wealth was unevenly spread, with 11.4% of the population living in poverty, according to World Bank data.

Indonesia's positive response to both the BPS and Ipsos surveys appears to confirm conventional wisdom that money can't buy happiness. Among BPS survey respondents, positive answers about time spent with family and neighbours outweighed concerns about access to clean drinking water and unstable housing materials. [fold]

However, a 2013 study by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network showed a very different picture. In the network's 2013 World Happiness Report, Denmark took first place, with Australia at number 10 and Indonesia way down at number 76. The main difference was in the methodology — the UN aimed to balance subjective measures of happiness and well-being, as used by Ipsos and the BPS,  with more objective measures of social and economic progress. Countries with high incomes and good social safety nets scored better than those where citizens merely claimed to be happy when asked to rate their life satisfaction.

Nonetheless, the BPS and Ipsos surveys do reveal something about national attitudes to happiness. Daniel Haybron, author of Happiness: A Very Short Introduction wrote in the New York Times last week that happiness is more usefully understood as a state of emotional well-being than an outcome of life satisfaction, pleasure or the absence of pain. Indonesians' positive ratings of personal happiness in the midst of physical discomforts or socio-economic disadvantage suggest that this is the understanding of happiness, or kebahagiaan, among the general population.

While living conditions and social services may be inadequate for many Indonesians, emotional well-being appears to be healthy, probably due to the good relations with neighbours, friends and family reported in the BPS survey. In other words, the difference between the UN report and the BPS and Ipsos reports is how they measure Pharrell Williams' claims on the possibilities of happiness in a room without a roof.


Coming at the end of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's term, a decade in which Indonesia remained stable but did not make great improvements in closing the gap between rich and poor, the BPS survey can be seen as an affirmation of the president's success. The results appear as an answer to a rhetorical question posed by the late President Suharto, now seen in meme-style stickers on electricity poles and on the backs of trucks across Java: 'enak jamanku to?' ('it was good in my day, wasn't it?').

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