It’s one of the world’s 49 least developed countries and almost half of the voting population is unhappy with the current government. But 72 percent of Cambodians are generally happy and spend large amounts of their time laughing, smiling and enjoying life.
That’s the conclusion of a poll released on Monday by global research company Gallup, which puts Cambodians in the upper half of the 143 countries surveyed for regularly experienced “positive emotions” in 2012.
According to the Positive Experience Index, Cambodians feel good less often than people in Thailand and Malaysia, but are generally more upbeat than citizens of Vietnam, Laos and Singapore. With a score of 77 percent, the U.S. scored slightly higher than China, where 74 percent of people regularly experience positive emotions.
Cambodia rose six percentage points compared to last year’s survey. Paraguay leads the list with a score of 86 percent, while people in Syria, which received a score of 46, are unsurprisingly the least likely to regularly experience positive emotions.
While researchers called into question the reliability and utility of the poll, which was conducted in 2012, Gallup’s research follows a number of other surveys showing that Cambodians generally have a positive perception of their lives.
Researchers with Gallup asked more than 1,000 Cambodians a series of yes or no questions to find out “whether they experienced enjoyment a lot, felt respected, felt well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and learned or did something interesting the previous day,” the report says.
Ouch Sarin, 63, a retired civil servant who worked at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, took a break from a brisk walk at a park along Sihanouk Boulevard to say that he thought the Gallup report sounded accurate.
“I agree with the report because I always feel happy,” he said. Though he added that the ongoing political dispute between the CPP and CNRP was bringing him down a bit.
Sitting at a table at the construction site around the monument of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk near Independence Monument, construction worker Ou Chrien, 28, said that she was usually too worried about money to enjoy her life.
“I sometimes feel happy and sometimes don’t. I can’t take a rest because I have so much work to do, including collecting trash and cooking food,” she said.
“I sometimes make jokes with my coworkers but I still have many things to think about, especially how to find money to build my own home. Everything will be difficult for me if I don’t have money,” she added.
Sitting across the street from Ms. Chrien and sipping on bubble tea with a friend, Serey Davin, a 17-year-old student at the Zaman high school, said that he had no complaints about his life.
“We all got problems but we have to work around them,” he said.
While numerous surveys have shown that Cambodians are quite happy with their lot, about 30 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, spending much less than a dollar a day.
Another survey conducted by Gallup in 2010 showed that Cambodia ranked last in Asia on the “well-being” scale. Asked to rate their own well-being, and prospects for a brighter future, only 3 percent of Cambodians reported that they were “thriving,” by giving themselves a score of seven or higher out of ten.
In that poll, 75 percent of Cambodians reported that they were “struggling,” while 22 percent said they were “suffering.” Nonetheless, Cambodians rated their “daily experience,” a similar indicator to the “positive experience index,” at 7.6 out of 10, one of the highest scores in the region.
This disconnect between people’s positive perception of their lives, when they are still struggling just to get by, is largely due to what researcher Ian Ramage calls “a function of low expectations.”
“We have a massive public movement for change and then people saying ‘yeah things are great.’ But it kind of makes sense, things are much better than before,” said Mr. Ramage, director of Angkor Research and Consulting.
“Things have changed phenomenally fast. Things are getting better, not great, but I can see why they are so positive. In their recent lifetimes [Cambodians] have seen important positive changes,” he added.
A survey conducted by U.S.-based International Republican Institute in January showed that 79 percent of 2,000 respondents felt that Cambodia is “generally headed in the right direction,” with most people citing the building of more roads as their reasoning.
Another report from the U.N. Development Program released in March showed that Cambodian’s have a surprisingly positive view of the country’s education system, which is regularly rated as one of the worst in the region.
In that survey, 94 percent of Cambodians said they were satisfied with the education quality in the country, the highest rate of the 187 countries included in the report. Yet more proof of low expectations?
Hean Sokhom, the president of the Center for Advanced Studies, said that surveys that measured relative indicators of happiness and well-being failed to account for the different ways the terms might be defined in different parts of the world.
“I think that happy [for Cambodians] is related to everyday life: they can feed their family, they can survive with their whole family, they can have peace without war, they have freedom to earn a living on their own without control like during the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
“These kinds of things lead people to say I am happy now. Even though they are poor, they say they are happy,” he added.