SINGAPORE (AP) — Emerging Asian nations are finding out what developed ones did years ago: Money — and the stuff it buys — brings happiness, or at least satisfaction.
Levels of self-reported well-being in fast-growing nations like Indonesia, China and Malaysia now rival those in the U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom, rich nations that have long topped the happiness charts, according to a Pew Research Center global survey released Friday.
It says it shows how rises in national income are closely linked to personal satisfaction.
The pollsters asked people in 43 countries to place themselves on a "ladder of life," with the top rung representing the best possible life and the bottom the worst. Pew carried out the same survey in 2002 and 2005 in most of those countries, enabling researchers to look at trends over time.
But the data also suggested that there is a limit to how much happiness money can buy. For example, 56 percent of Malaysians rated their life a "seven" or higher on the ladder, significantly more than the 36 percent in Bangladesh, a poor country. Yet the public in Germany, which has far higher gross domestic product per capita than Malaysia, expressed a life satisfaction level of 60 percent, just 4 percentage points more than Malaysia.
While wealth appears to contribute to happiness, other research has indicated it is far from the only factor. Women tend to be happier than man, for example, and unmarried and middle-aged people tend to report lower levels of well-being than married and younger people, respectively.
The Pew survey results, which were based on 47,643 interviews in 43 countries with adults 18 and older between March and June, also found that people in emerging and developing economies prioritize a few essentials in life, including their health, their children's education and safety from crime. Fewer people in those economies said Internet access, car ownership, free time or the ability to travel is very important in their lives.
The survey saw significant gains in personal satisfaction in Indonesia, where 58 percent of those polled placed themselves on the seventh-highest rung of the "ladder of life" or above, up from 23 percent in 2007, and Malaysia, where 56 percent put themselves in that same upper range, up from 36 percent seven years ago. In Vietnam, which wasn't included in the 2007 survey, 64 percent said they were on the seventh-highest rung or above.
The Associated Press asked people in those three nations what they thought of the findings.
"Money can't secure happiness," said Nguyen Thi Mai, 66-year-old retired teacher as she was relaxed on a bench overlooking scenic Hoan Kiem lake in central Hanoi. "There are people who don't have any money but they lead a happy life because family members love and respect each other. But there are rich families where husbands and wives often quarrel and children are addicted to drugs."
"I was not under much pressure to earn a living as many others since my parents can pay for my living if I don't work," said Nguyen Phuong Linh, a fresh graduate who was distributing brochures to passers-by outside the Hanoi super market she works in. "But life would be better if I have a job with good pay."
"Money can buy lots of happiness for me because I am very materialistic," said businessman Tony Wong. "But that's not the only thing that makes me happy. Money is No. 1 on my top five list, followed by health, family, dogs and friends."
Rusmaini Jusoh, a Malaysian housewife with three children, said she used to quarrel with her truck driver husband over money, but things improved after she began a small online business selling second-hand children's clothing.
"With more money, we could take the kids for holiday and buy them whatever they want. That makes me happy," Rusmaini said. "But more importantly, we must be grateful for what we have. That will surely make us happy."
"Of course, without money you cannot fulfill your basic needs, but money is not everything," said Irwan Yahya, a 45-year-old mechanical engineer in Jakarta who runs his own company. "Otherwise, happiness only belongs to the rich."
Daisy Daryanti, a 50-year-old Indonesian housewife, said that money can buy happiness but only for a "moment."
"Happiness is relative, not merely about money, but tranquility, quietness," she said.
The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan research center that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It is funded by a charitable trust.