The streets of Jakarta are somewhat hectic, but there’s a buzzing social vibrancy to it.
It’s somewhat unusual to see people by themselves. You will see lines of people congregating along roadsides, standing or squatting, for no apparent reason other than to have a chat.
As I walk down the road, people will call out:
“Australia? Australia is a beautiful country!”
Last night I stumbled across the World Happiness Report 2015 and found a wealth of interesting data. In particular, it supports my anecdotal observations about Indonesians.
The measure of day-to-day happy mood is called “positive affect”. On this measure, Indonesia is in the top handful of countries in the world, year after year.
The most recent year with data available for both Australia and Indonesia is 2013. In 2013, Indonesia had the second highest “positive affect” out of 135 countries. Australia comes in at 25:
In the World Happiness Report, positive affect is based on Gallup World Poll surveys asking whether responders experienced “happiness”, “laughter” and “enjoyment” on the previous day. The results presented above reflect the average of these three measures in terms of the portion of responders who said they experienced the respective emotion for a “LOT OF THE DAY”.
In a 2014 IPSOS poll of global happiness, Indonesia topped the 24th countries surveyed by a mile:
Smiling is a Javanese obsession. Virtually everyone smiles widely when coming into contact with someone – friend or stranger. Conspicuous displays of frustration, anger or disappointment are not done. In my six months in Jakarta, I can only recall seeing one openly grumpy conversation.
I find Indonesians very friendly. They forgive my effectively non-existent Indonesian; my staccato nouns, strung one after the other in one-word sentences, interspersed with English and pointing for the verbs.
My personal trainer epitomises the cheery Java stereotype. This despite working extreme hours. I see him giving classes at 6am, I see him giving classes at 10pm. His laughter is incessant. It’s almost ridiculous.
If he says he spent two hours in the traffic today: Bahahahahaha! If I say I ran out of time to eat breakfast today: Bahahahaha! When I attempt one too many push ups and collapse on my face: bahahahahaha!
Prior to coming to Indonesia, I had observed that laughter could serve very different social functions depending on context. It’s the old distinction between laughing with and laughing at.
Humour can be used as a weapon, as a tool of mockery; or humour can be used as a peace-keeping device. It can diffuse tensions, gloss over potentially awkward situations and allow people to save face.
When something goes wrong, a warm laugh from all involved can reaffirm group bonds by signalling that no one is really mad or upset. The mocking type of laughter is essentially non-existent in my Jakarta experience; warm laughter is so endemic it’s practically a cultural ideology.
What can explain Indonesians’ world-leading cheeriness?
According to the World Happiness Report two variables stand out as predictors of positive affect: freedom and generosity.
The report examines generosity based on responses to “Have you donated money to a charity in the past month?” in the World Gallop Poll. Of course, rich people who don’t need to worry about life’s essentials have more money to give, so the report controls for GDP per capita.
On this measure, Indonesia is the second most generous country in the world in 2014 out of 95 countries surveyed. It’s consistently in the top few countries. In 2013, the most recent year with data for both countries, Indonesia is third of 128 countries. Australia is also quite giving, coming in at number 13:
These survey results ring true for me. My anecdotal observation is that concern for the poor has a stronger influence over public discussion than in Australia. Of course, this might just be because absolute poverty is still a big problem in Indonesia, but my guess is it’s a bigger political issue than in comparable developing countries as well. It was a very important part of Jokowi’s electoral success.
In addition, Islamic institutions in Indonesia emphasise charitable giving to those in poverty.
The World Happiness Report notes there is no correlation between national income per capita and national levels of positive affect. (There is, however, a correlation between income and “life satisfaction”, which is a different concept of happiness.)
In summary, generosity strongly predicts “positive affect”, which in turn predicts how satisfied people say they are with their lives.
Negative affect – the presence of negative emotions – however, has no correlation with overall life satisfaction. It seems it is more important to have happy experiences than to avoid sad and stressful ones.
The take-away appears to be that generosity and cheeriness can help protect us from our hardships, and help us live happier, more fulfilling lives.
On this front, Australia – and the world – can learn from the cheerful and giving Indonesians.