Happiness lessons

In spite of the wide socio-economic disparities, India can learn a thing or two from Switzerland, the happiest country on the planet


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | August 31, 2015 | Geneva

Switzerland has the happiest people in the world, says the World Happiness Report 2015, thereby reconfiguring the traditional trope of Bhutan and happiness. This would make some people scream at the “unfairness” of it all – imagine living in the picturesque Alpine country surrounded by happy neighbours, colleagues and family.

The first World Happiness Report came out in April 2012 in support of the UN high-level meeting on happiness and well-being after the 2011 UN General Assembly resolution sponsored by – no prizes for guessing – the prime minister of Bhutan. He invited member states to measure the happiness of their peoples and use it as a tool for guiding public policy.

According to the analyses, three quarters of the difference between countries are accounted for by six key variables, each exposing a different aspect of life: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations, adjusted for differences in income).

The analyses also include life experiences both positive – happiness, smiling or laughter, enjoyment, feeling safe at night, feeling well-rested, and feeling interested – and negative – anger, worry, sadness, depression, stress and pain.

The countries are marked on a scale from zero to 10, where zero represents the “worst possible life” and 10 the “best possible life”. The ratings differ from an average over 7.5 for countries with top rankings and under three for countries on the not-so-happy side of the spectrum.

The top four happiest countries between 2012 and 2014 were Switzerland (7.587), followed by Iceland (7.561), Denmark (7.527) and Norway (7.522). The least happy countries are Afghanistan (3.575), Rwanda (3.465), Benin (3.460), Syria (3.006), Burundi (2. 906) and Togo (2.839).

India is at the 117th position with a rating of 4.565 and is couched between Liberia and Sudan. If suicide rates are an indicator to a lack of well being then India can safely be described as the suicide capital of the world. According to a report on suicide released by WHO last year, India accounts for almost one-third of the world’s suicides. As many as 2,58,075 people committed suicide in India in 2012 with more males than females ending their lives that year. Suicide rates per 1,00,000 people show that it is most prevalent in the age bracket of 15-29 years followed by 30-49 age group.

To compare India’s statistics; Pakistan has 13,377 suicides per year, China has 1,20,730 suicides (second in ranking as per WHO), Afghanistan has 1,205 suicides, and Bangladesh has 10,167 suicides annually. 

India stands in happiness ranking below the socio-politically disturbed Palestinian territories, Iran, Iraq, Ukraine and Pakistan. Bhutan is 79th with a score of 5.253 while the US is ranked 15 in the World Happiness Report.

While some may attribute Switzerland’s fortuitous position as a stroke of luck – what with such breathtaking landscapes, it may be noted that physical landscapes are definitely bounties of nature endowed on many countries including Switzerland, however ‘happiness’ is definitely not a fortuitous given, it has to be pursued as a stated policy and recognised as a goal equal in importance to, say, economic growth.

Some may just shrug their shoulders and say that socio-cultural contexts of countries are vastly different, but it is important to note that Switzerland stands out in its well-being quotient even among the developed and the most powerful nations, whose contexts are comparable. Even for countries vastly different in their contexts, is there really nothing worth learning from Switzerland?

Here are some of the reasons that make the Swiss a happy bunch.

Work-life balance

The Swiss obsession with work-life balance can be infinitely irritating for outsiders. The work-life balance includes the sacrality attached with the lunch hour. Offices empty out like during a fire drill and the lunch break can extend from anything between a minimum of one hour to an hour and 45 minutes. It is near impossible to catch anyone during the time and phone calls are definitely an intrusion into private time of the break. This is true for the private sector as well, including the highly productive watch industries and the Swiss banks.

At the UN, only weary journalists of news agencies grab a quick lunch instead of a leisurely one. Almost all are from outside the country, and hence, do not consider lunch breaks a possessively guarded time, or at least the news agencies they are employed by don’t. I wish there was a Swiss international news agency to show the way.

It is usual for lunch breaks to include, apart from lunch, a walk, a swim in the lake or a visit to a jacuzzi. Eating on the desk while working is unacceptable and frowned upon. It doesn’t earn you any extra points from the employer and, in fact, may have the opposite effect.

The Swiss world comes to a standstill on weekends. Shops are required to be closed on Sunday by law. There is a special permission required to work on Sundays and there have been some changes in timings to extend their hours though not all are happy about it. It is hard to believe, no matter if you come from a developed or a developing part of the world, to understand the silence of the weekends. You are half compelled to take a hike in the mountains, if it is summer and ski, if it is winter. Weekend is family time.

According to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data, the average annual working hours for a Swiss worker has decreased from 1,674 hours in 2000 to 1,568 in 2014. A worker in the US, on the other hand, worked 1,836 hours in 2000 and 1,789 hours in 2014. However, the average Swiss worker earned the equivalent of $91,574 a year in 2013, while the average American worker earned only $55,708.

However, there is a big “black market” labour in the country comprising those who have been pushed from their violent shores due to war or poverty, like the illegal immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, Asia, Latin America (especially Brazil) and Eastern Europe who fall through the cracks of stipulated Swiss working hours and minimum wage.


Professional part-time work is not only accepted but is actively encouraged by state policies. This translates to the fact that part-time work carries with it all the benefits of fulltime work. So you have a choice to be employed from 25 percent of your time to 100 percent and work out various permutations and combinations with the employer to thrash out a schedule that best suits you. Unlike in other parts of the world, part-time jobs in Switzerland do not necessarily imply unskilled workers and low pay. Jobs are often advertised with percentage requirements. 

If a couple with a small child, for instance, wants to work 80 percent of the time each, then each gets to spend one day of the five-day week with the child, thus reducing day care by two days. Or for instance, a 50 percent work may mean half day of the five-day week or two and a half days full time of the week.

Studies have shown that part-time work gains ground only with active state intervention. This in turn is highly conducive for providing flexible employment effectively sucking up vast chunks of the labour force, particularly women for a country like India, to contribute to the market. In 2000 in the Netherlands, the right of women and men to ask for part-time jobs was written into Dutch law, thus making it less acceptable for one member of the couple to remain longer hours at work.

Gender balance

It is particularly telling to note that in countries where part-time professional work is encouraged, percentage of employed women in the 25-54 age group is big: it is 83 percent for Sweden, 82 percent for Norway and 81 percent for Switzerland. However, the US which does not have an active part-time work regime has seen the participation of women falling – the percentage of prime-age women in the labour force peaked at 74 percent in 1999 but fell to 69 percent in 2014.

India lags terribly behind even among the G-20 and BRICS group of countries, faring only better than Saudi Arabia among the former but being the worst-off among the latter. According to a World Economic Forum report in 2013, India ranked 124 among 136 nations, ranking above Syria, Egypt and Pakistan.

According to the UN, the participation of women in India’s workforce has substantially declined over the decade from 33.7 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 2012 – one of the few countries to go against the trend of increasing women’s participation in the economy. The rate of India’s female graduates entering the market force is 22 percent, which is lower than that of illiterate women entering the workforce.

Apart from the work flexibility, the strength of the Swiss social system also lies in its generous leave policies. The employee is required by law to take a minimum of a four-week vacation every year. Most companies give a six-week vacation. Vacation time, like lunchtime, is sacred and the employees are expected to take it seriously. If you are still at your desk during July-August, instead of at the beach or a mountain resort, you are susceptible to accusations of abnormality.

The law mandates maternity leave of 14 weeks (minimum) with at least 80 percent pay. A friend of mine who is a salon owner has her manicurist/pedicurist off for four months for maternity with full pay that will be paid by the insurance. The premium for such insurance is required to be paid by the employer. The woman can make a choice of returning fulltime or part-time to work after that. Apart from this, the Swiss government also pays a monthly child stipend that makes up for any loss that the family might be incurring due to temporary job loss in case of either parent.

Help for the unemployed

Apart from some of these tight safety nets, if you do find yourself unemployed and have a valid Swiss permit (which includes foreign nationals) or a settlement permit then the Swiss government pays 80 percent of your last salary for 18 months, with additional funding under certain conditions. If you live abroad – say, in France –but work in Switzerland and have a cross-border permit and pay into the Swiss unemployment insurance scheme, your unemployment benefits will be given in your country of residence and you can benefit from the services of the public work placement scheme. Foreign nationals are not required to leave the country immediately if they lose their jobs or if the employment contract expires.

A British man told a local newspaper how pleasantly surprised he was with his experience of being unemployed in Switzerland and visiting an unemployment centre. “In England, where I come from, such places mean only three things: futility, shame and demoralization,” he said. He described the Swiss unemployment centre as “cheerful” and active and “there is also scarce prejudice towards you if you are not Swiss”.

All this might give an impression that such a cushy system may spike the unemployment rates in the country. However, the Swiss unemployment rate is low compared to other European countries: it is around 3.3 percent, according to the latest figures from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).


That the socio-economic contexts of India and Switzerland are incomparably different is a given – according to the 2009-10 ILO statistics, 83.6 percent people in India were in informal employment. However, is there really nothing to learn from the Swiss social system?

While we are quick to catch on to the “western mantra” of economic growth, technological advancement and industrialisation, there seems to be a certain reluctance and resistance on our part to understand and learn from models of well-being in these societies citing socio-cultural differences. While we do have favourable demographics, the so-called dividend is unlikely to accrue unless we learn new ways of honing its potential. And hence, it might do us good to attempt importing well-being models into highly wound-up societies like India. Who knows what results await!


(The article appears in the August 1-15, 2015 issue)



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