What's the Big Idea?

A Survey of Happiness in Afghanistan

Tuesday, June 2, 2009; 12:00 AM

When Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee today for his confirmation hearing as the new top commander of the troubled U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, he may take some small comfort in the fact that, believe it or not, eight out of ten Afghans smiled yesterday.

That is one of the findings of an unusual survey published by Carol Graham and Soumya Chattopadhyay of the Brookings Institution, titled "Well-Being and Public Attitudes in Afghanistan: Some Insights from the Economics of Happiness." With the assistance of a local consulting firm and recent graduates from the University of Kabul, the authors oversaw a survey of 2,000 Afghans early this year, focusing largely on measuring the level of happiness of the Afghan people.

On a scale of 1 (not at all happy with your life) to 4 (very happy), Afghans scored an average of 2.62 -- not great, but in the neighborhood of, say, Latin America, which in a 1997-2007 regional survey posted a 2.8 average. Also, 81 percent of Afghans reported smiling at least once the previous day, similar to Latin America as a whole (82 percent) but far better than, for instance, Cuba (62 percent).

So, the good news is that Afghans report some happiness; the bad news may be the reasons why. For example, Graham and Chattopadhyay find that Afghans have grown used to criminal activity and bad government in their midst. "Being a victim of crime or corruption in Afghanistan does not result in a decline in reported well-being," they write, "suggesting that individuals have come to expect such events as the norm."

Given the security conditions in the country, a survey like this inevitably comes up against some significant caveats. Women make up only 11 percent of the respondents, for example, since many feared being seen talking to strangers. Another problem is that, to ensure the safety of the interviewers, the survey does not include the most dangerous and conflict-ridden parts of the country. Even so, approximately a fourth of the respondents hailed from provinces with relatively higher Taliban presence than the others surveyed, and those respondents generally showed higher levels of happiness -- a finding that any U.S. or NATO effort to sway the Afghan population against the Taliban would have to confront.

-- Carlos Lozada

© 2009 The Washington Post Company