Skip to main content

Well-being, Happiness and Why Relationships Matter: Evidence from Bangladesh


Although Bangladesh is known as one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world, qualitative research and anecdotal evidence suggests its people report levels of happiness that are higher than those found in many other countries. This includes ‘developed’ countries where people have larger per capita incomes and can access a wider range of public services and goods. The paper explores this apparent paradox by analysing primary quantitative and qualitative data, and engaging with existing literature on happiness and objective wellbeing in Bangladesh. The data and analysis presented makes an original and timely contribution to the limited knowledge we have of the construction and experience of happiness and life satisfaction in contexts of extreme and persistent economic poverty. It identifies and offers insights into the ‘personal’ as well as social or ‘relational’ values and goals that people in Bangladesh consider important to achieve happiness in life. It also reflects on how different people experience these values and goals in very different ways. This, we argue, leads to a better understanding of the influence of the social and cultural context in the construction of people’s happiness. In the conclusion, we reflect on the policy implications of our findings.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Another explanation of this anomaly is that objective poverty is an academic concept and therefore should not be expected to correlate well with more bottom-up notions like subjective poverty or happiness (Sumner 2004). Our thanks to Mariano Rojas for this observation.

  2. For example, if a three point scale had been used, the mean score would be calculated as follows: Mean score = (% of sample scoring 3 * 3) + (% of sample scoring 2 * 2) + (% of sample scoring 1 * 1). The % SM would be obtained by a further calculation as follows: (mean score−1) * 100 / (3−1) * 50.

  3. Our perspective on the relationship between happiness and wellbeing has been influenced by Uchida et al. (2004) who define happiness as an emotional concomitant to people’s appraisal of the quality of their lives.

  4. See for example Mahmuda (2003), Nabi et al. (1999), Mahbub and Roy (1997).

  5. The items from the ‘Knowledge about social environment scale’ covered women’s empowerment, social relationships, gender equality in employment, and so on.

  6. The ‘Consultations with the Poor’ study was a World Bank funded initiative synthesising participatory poverty assessments and new participatory fieldwork from over 70 developing countries. It was published in three volumes: “Can Anyone Hear Us?” (Narayan et al. 2000a); “Crying Out for Change” (Narayan et al. 2000b); and “From Many Lands” (Narayan and Walton 2002).

  7. The WeD Programme involves detailed and intensive fieldwork in rural, peri-urban, and urban sites in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Thailand. For more information see

  8. The exploratory quality of life data from all countries is also being used to develop a cross-cultural measure of QoL, provisionally called the WeD-QoL (see Camfield et al. 2006).

  9. The other main research instruments applied in each site were community profiling, a Resources and Needs Questionnaire (RANQ), income and expenditure survey, monthly diaries, welfare regime analysis, and process orientated research.

  10. Although the sample for the QoL was not large, the decision to consider age, gender, socio-economic status and religious affiliation in the selection of respondents helped in some way to acknowledge the great heterogeneity that exists across persons in Bangladesh. Happiness is ultimately an individual construct and it is important not to assume homogeneity when making statements about what constitutes a happy life in a particular country context.

  11. Interviews were carried out in Bengali by local researchers of the same gender who had worked in the site for at least a year previously and were fluent in both Bengali and English. The interviews were not recorded, however detailed notes were made in Bengali and English both during and after the interviews.

  12. These questions have been used successfully in many developing countries during the last 20 years (see for example, Moller 2006), and the World Values Survey has used a ‘General Happiness Question’ with a representative sample of the Bangladeshi population since 1996 (see

  13. The sample size for the Resources and Needs Questionnaire (n = 1,500) is equivalent to that used in national happiness surveys, see World Database of Happiness

  14. The responses to the QoL were coded into three categories: ‘happy (responses of ‘very happy’, ‘happy’, ‘moderately happy’ and ‘a little happy’), ‘neither happy nor unhappy’, and ‘unhappy’ (responses of ‘unhappy’ and ‘very unhappy’).

  15. 370 men and women were sampled across the six sites used for the QoL and RANQ research and the SWLS and PANAS were applied alongside ‘native’ scales measuring goal necessity, goal satisfaction, perceived resources, and perception of self and others (see for further details).

  16. The most recent publicly accessible report is no:16

  17. Inglehart et al. 2004 gets an even lower figure for Bangladeshis’ subjective well-being (0.54 out of 5 or ‘medium low’) when he combines the life satisfaction and happiness scores. However, this may be an artefact of the method of questioning as the developer of the Personal Generated Index (an individualized measure of subjective quality of life similar to Cantril’s Ladder [1965]) had a similar experience when using satisfaction/dissatisfaction rather than good/bad as the question stem during piloting in Bangladesh (Ruta et al. 2004).

  18. Respondents to RANQ were asked to classify themselves as rich, average, or poor in relation to others in the research site.

  19. We are indebted to Geof Wood for reminding us of the need to distinguish between the happiness level of farmers and agricultural labourers.

  20. Young was defined as 18–45 years old, while old was over 45 years old.

  21. The small sample size, especially when broken down further by age and gender, means that any conclusions are tentative ones, which require further empirical support.

  22. The names of all sites surveyed as part of the research have been anonymised.

  23. As there is usually a substantial age difference between wives and their husbands, and remarriage for widows is not common, women are reliant on their children for support in later life. Their relationship with sons is particularly important, as sons are expected to offer their parents sustained financial support and ultimately a home. Daughters, on the other hand, tend to move away from their natal home at marriage and although they remain attached to their natal home, they must also assume responsibility for the care of their elderly in-laws.

  24. ‘Halal’ refers here to an income secured in a way that is considered legitimate.

  25. For example, according to Rojas’s study in Mexico (2006), household income was a better proxy for wellbeing than personal income or expenditure, suggesting that in Mexico at least there are material benefits to living with your family.

  26. Marriage in Bangladesh is predominantly patrilocal. New brides therefore have to make a double adjustment in their lives: to their new husbands, often strangers at the time of marriage, and to their husband’s household. This period of adjustment is a particular time of stress that impinges very directly on women’s ability to achieve happiness in life (Ewing 1991).

  27. A ‘love marriage’ is a phrase used to describe a marriage in which husband and wife have fallen in love before marriage. This is distinct from the more common ‘arranged marriages’ in which the families of the spouses take a more active role in setting up the marriage, at times without the spouses meeting until discussions are well advanced.

  28. See Wood’s analysis (2006) of dependent forms of security, where poor people use strategies that are embedded in social relationships to increase their chances of making their lives more secure and predictable.

  29. The Conceptual Referent Theory is supported by the results of a large survey in Mexico that used simple summary statements (for example, “happiness is accepting things as they are”) to test whether there was a relationship between people’s satisfaction with life and their endorsement of one of eight different conceptual referents (stoicism, virtue, enjoyment, carpe diem, satisfaction, utopian, tranquility, and fulfillment). Rojas used mulitlogit techniques to show that the probability of choosing a particular conceptual referent was influenced by people’s socio-economic and demographic situation, and concluded that while no referent could be considered as superior in producing happiness, some were clearly inferior (for example, utopian and carpe diem).

  30. Western ego psychologists define intrapsychic autonomy as the ability to maintain enduring mental representations of sources of self-esteem and comfort, which enable flexible adaptation to new environments. Its value in a developing country context is affirmed by Ewing, a psychological anthropologist working in Pakistan, who identifies it as a key factor in the successful integration of a new bride into her husband’s household (1991).


  • Appadurai, A. (2004). The capacity to aspire. In V. Rao & M. Walton (Eds.), Culture and public action C.A.: Stanford University Press.

  • Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2001). Making the best of a bad situation: Satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Social Indicators Research, 55, 329–352.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2006). The subjective well-being of the homeless, and lessons for happiness. Social Indicators Research, 76, 185–205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Camfield, L., & McGregor, J. A. (2005). Resilience and wellbeing in developing countries. In M. Ungar (Ed.), Handbook for working with children and youth pathways to resilience across cultures and contexts. CA: Age.

    Google Scholar 

  • Camfield, L., McGregor, J. A., & Yamamoto, J. (2007). Quality of Life and Wellbeing. WeD Working Paper. (in press). .

  • Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concerns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cummins, R. (1995). On the trail of gold standard for subjective well-being. Social Indicators Research, 35, 179–200.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cummins, R. (1996). The domains of life satisfaction: An attempt to order chaos. Social Indicators Research, 38, 303–328.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cummins, R. (2002). Normative life satisfaction: measurement issues and a homeostatic model. Social Indicators Research, 64, 225–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cummins, R. (2005). Caregivers as managers of subjective wellbeing: A homeostatic perspective. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 18, 335–344.

    Google Scholar 

  • Davis, P. (2005). Power-resources and social policy in Bangladesh: A life history perspective. University of Bath. Department of Economics and International Development.

  • Devine, J. (2005). Change and the everyday politics of community based organisations, Membership Based Organizations of the Poor Workshop, Cornell-SEWA-WIEGO, January 1004, Ahmedabad, India.

  • Devine, J., Camfield, L., & Gough, I. (2006). Autonomy or Dependence—or Both? Perspectives from Bangladesh. Journal of Happiness Studies doi: 10.1007/s10902-006-9022-5

  • Devine, J., & Ueda, M. (2006). Whose wellbeing? Women’s work and childcare arrangements in rural Bangladesh. UK: University of Bath.

    Google Scholar 

  • Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1995). The Wealth of nations revisited: Income and quality of life. Social Indicators Research, 36, 275–286.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2000). Explaining differences in societal levels of happiness: Relative standards need fulfillment culture and evaluation theory. Journal for Happiness of Studies, 1, 41–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13, 81–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Doyal, L., & Gough, I. (1991). A theory of human need. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Easterlin, R. (2003). Explaining Happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pp 100, 11,176–11,183.

  • Ewing, K. P. (1991). Can psychoanalytic theories explain the Pakistani women? intrapsychic autonomy and interpersonal engagement in the extended family. Ethnos, 19, 131–160.

    Google Scholar 

  • Faaland, J., & Parkinson, J. (1976). Bangladesh: A test case for development. London: C. Hurst and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fuentes, N., & Rojas, M. (2001). Economic theory and subjective well-being: Mexico. Social Indicators Research, 53, 289–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goetz, A. M., & Sen Gupta, R. (1996). Who takes the credit? Gender and power in rural credit programmes in Bangladesh. World Development, 27, 45–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hartmann, B., & Boyce, J. (1983). A quiet violence. London: Zed.

    Google Scholar 

  • Helliwell, J. F. (2003). How’s Life? Combining individual and national variables explain subjective well-being. Economic Modeling, 20, 331–360.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Inglehart, R, Basanez, M., Diez-Medrano, J., Halman, L., & Luijkx, R. (Eds.) (2004). Human beliefs and values. A cross-cultural sourcebook based on the 1999–2002 values surveys. Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores.

  • Kenny, C. (2005). Why are we worried about income? nearly everything that matters is converging. World Development, 33, 1–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Khatun, M., Nasreen, W., Bhuya, A., & Chowdhury, M. (1998). Psychological well-being of women: Developing measurement tools, 23. BRAC-ICDDR, B Joint Research Project: Dhaka. .

  • Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a new science. London: Allen Lane.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mahbub, A. & Roy, R. D. (1997). An Emic Towards Wellbeing, 20. BRAC-ICDDR,B Joint Research Project: Dhaka.

  • Mahmuda, F. (2003). Understanding people’s perceptions of subjective well-being in a rural area in Bangladesh: A gender perspective. University of Bath, UK: Department of Economics and International Development.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moller, V. (2006). Researching quality of life in a developing country: Lessons from the South African case. In I. Gough & J. A. McGregor (Eds.), Wellbeing in developing countries: New approaches and research strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Myers, D. G. (1999). Close relationships and quality of life. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp. 434–450). New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nabi, R., Datta, D., Chakrabarty, S., Begum, M., & Chaudhury N. J. (1999). Consultation with the poor: Participatory poverty assessment in Bangladesh. Bangladesh: NGO Working Group on the World Bank.

    Google Scholar 

  • Narayan, D., Patel, R., Schafft, K., Rademacher, A., & Koch-Shulte, S. (2000a). Voices of the poor— can anyone hear us? Washington: World Bank.

    Google Scholar 

  • Narayan, D., & Walton, M. (2002). Voices of the poor—Voices from many lands. USA: OUP.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Narayan, D., Walton, M., & Chambers, R. (2000b). Voices of the poor: Crying out for change. Washington: World Bank.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Nargish, N. (2004). Purchasing Symbolic Capital: Middle Classes and education in Bangladesh, University of Bath. Department of Economics and International Development.

  • Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and Human Development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Oishi, S., Diener, E. F., Lucas, R. E., & Suh, E. M. (1999). Cross cultural variations in predictors of life satisfaction: Perspectives from needs and values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 980–990.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Resource Integration Centre, Bangladesh association for the Aged and Institute of Geriatric Medicine, BRAC, and Bangladesh Women’s Health Coalition Training Task Group. (2000). Uncertainty rules our lives: The situation of older people in Bangladesh (HelpAge International/HelpAge International HAI Asia/Pacific Regional Development Centre).

  • Rojas, M. (2005). A conceptual-referent theory of happiness: Heterogeneity and its consequences. Social Indicators Research, 74, 261–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rojas, M. (2006). Communitarian versus individualistic arrangements in the family: What, whose income matters for happiness? In R. J. Estes (Ed.), Advancing Quality of life in a turbulent world. Netherlands: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rojas, M. (2007). The complexity of wellbeing: a life-satisfaction conception and a domains-of-life approach. In I. Gough & J. A. McGregor (Eds.), Wellbeing in developing countries: new approaches and research strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Ruta, D. A., Camfield, L., & Martin, F. (2004). Assessing individual quality of life in developing countries: piloting a global PGI in Ethiopia and Bangladesh. Quality of Life Research, 13, 15–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. (2001). Self-determination theory and the facilitation on intrinsic motivation social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schwartz, C. E., & Sprangers, M. A. (1999). Methodological approaches for assessing response shift in longitudinal health-related quality of life research. Social Science & Medicine, 48(11), 153–148.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schyns, P. (2003). Income and life satisfaction—A cross-national and longitudinal study. Delft: Eburon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sen, A. (1985). Well-being, Agency and Freedom. Journal of Philosophy, 82, 169–221.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sen, B., & Hulme, D. (2004). The State of the Poorest 2004/2005: Chronic Poverty in Bangladesh—Tales of Ascent, Descent, Marginality and Persistence—Overview. Chronic Poverty Research Centre.

  • Sumner, A. (2004). Economic Well-being and Non-economic Well-being. A Review of the Meaning and Measurement of Poverty, 2004/30. WIDER.

  • Uchida, Y., Norasakkunit, V., & Shinobu, K. (2004). Cultural constructions of happiness: Theory and empirical evidence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 5, 223–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Veenhoven, R. (1991). Is happiness relative? Social Indicators Research, 24, 1–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063–1070.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • White, S. C. (1992). Arguing with the Crocodile: Gender and class in Bangladesh. London: Zed.

    Google Scholar 

  • White, S. C. (2002). Being, becoming and relationship: conceptual challenges of a child rights approach in development. Journal of International Development, 14(8), 1095–1104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wood, G. (2006). Using security to indicate wellbeing. In I. Gough & J. A. McGregor (Eds.), Wellbeing in developing countries: New approaches and research strategies Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Wood, G. (2003). Staying secure, staying poor: The Faustian Bargain. World Development, 31, 455–473.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Worcester, R. M. (1998). More than Money. In I. Christie & L. Nash (Eds.), The Good Life. London: Demos.

Download references


Thanks to the Wellbeing in Development Countries research team in Bangladesh, and to Mariano Rojas, Geof Wood, Robert Cummins, and two anonymous referees for their insightful comments and helpful recommendations on earlier drafts of this paper. The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The work was part of the programme of the ESRC Research Group on Wellbeing in Developing Countries.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laura Camfield.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Camfield, L., Choudhury, K. & Devine, J. Well-being, Happiness and Why Relationships Matter: Evidence from Bangladesh. J Happiness Stud 10, 71–91 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Bangladesh
  • Developing countries
  • International Development
  • Happiness
  • Quality of Life
  • Culture
  • Poverty
  • Relationships